I will admit, I didn’t know much about Munch except for his most famous painting ‘The Scream’. So, I was quite intrigued when the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam was exhibiting Munch and Van Gogh side by side. Digging up a bit, I discovered that art historians and art writers had often found parallels between the two artists. Though the artists never met each other in real life, posthumously the Munch Museum of Oslo and Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam decided to explore the historical and artistic connection between the two artists in this much-feted exhibition.
I made my way to Amsterdam, closely following the google maps for my way from the station to the museum. On arriving at the museum, I learnt I had to wait at least an hour even though I had a museum card. Sighing, I was half in mind to turn back, but perhaps the artistic power of Munch and Van Gogh was too intensive for me to turn away. After patiently waiting for almost an hour in the winds of Netherlands, I finally made my way into the museum. For both the beginning had been rather rudimentary. You could see that in the paintings when they started, they still had not developed their unique style and technique. Van Gogh in particular you could see used a lot of browns and dark palettes. Van Gogh wanted to paint the peasants and the things he saw in daily life as they were, crude, coarse and rough. Despite his preparation and practice for the painting ‘The Potato Eaters’, it was not well received since Van Gogh’s desire to paint the everyday and common people had resulted in a caricature.
Similar to Van Gogh’s father, who was a pastor and who often disagreed with Van Gogh’s decision to be a painter, Munch’s father too considered the vocation unholy. Van Gogh often copied other masterpieces in order to practice the intricacies and techniques of highlighting and use of colors. Munch too initially dabbled in various styles such as impressionism, but after both the artists received lukewarm response for their first masterpieces, they decided to move to Paris, the abode of all things artistic. While in Paris, Van Gogh came in contact with artists like Paul Gauguin, and so did Munch. Their stint in Paris was decisive, as post-Paris one can discern the clear emergence of a style for both artists. Van Gogh’s use of bright, contrasting or complementary colors was indicative of his desire to express varying emotions. Whereas, Munch’s use of bright colors and undulating lines and structures highlighted the sentiments of turmoil and pain.
Even though Munch admired Van Gogh much, and despite the similar trajectories that both the artists seemed to have undertaken, I found a marked difference in the styles of both the artists. Van Gogh’s paintings I often thought were somewhat more fantastical in their approach. From his earlier approach to depicting the everyday life and people, in his later paintings, his desire to depict emotions of surprise, love, hate and existence lent itself more to a favorable palette. Perhaps it was due to his mental illness, which made him perceive things as larger than life. For instance, his painting ‘The Bedroom’, in reality though the bedroom was not so bright and cheerful as it appears in the painting, but his vision and imagination pictured the bedroom as that, and hence makes us as the viewer cheerful looking at it. Or take for example the painting ‘Starry night over the Rhone’ gives a fairy tale like quality to the setting; the twinkling stars and their reflection on the water give it an ephemeral and clandestine feel.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know much of Munch besides ‘The Scream’, yes that was there, but as I observed his paintings, the undulating fat lines, the seamless flow between different structures within the painting, the use of strong contrasting colors and distorted figures, especially the wide-open mouths gave me a feeling of oppression, terror and despair. Later when I decided to read a bit more about Munch, I discovered his father would often recite him stories of Edgar Allen Poe. That somewhat to me put light into his more macabre themes and concepts. Yet each of his paintings were haunting, haunting enough to draw me in. It is perhaps a coincidence, but just a few days back I happened to use Munch’s painting ‘Ashes’ as a supporting picture for my blogpost, and here I was, standing right in front of it, moved by its impact and depth. A woman with wild open hair in a middle of a forlorn forest screaming, and a man sitting helpless in front of the woman.
If Van Gogh enlightened the cheerful side of me, Munch heightened the despair part of me. Both artists seemed to excel in eliciting heightened emotions amongst its viewers. Another aspect which particularly intrigued me is that both artists have drawn a series of self-portraits. Even though in essence they look all the same in their self-portraits, but look closely and in some you will find a straight nose, and in some a crooked one, or a lean face or in some a puffed-up space. I briefly entertained the idea of them trying to paint themselves in various expressions, how they looked maybe? But perhaps it was more of a projection of their multiple selves through the only medium they could express well, through the mode of painting themselves.
Considering the varying degrees of emotions and sentiments that both the artists focused on, the exhibition also featured Munch’s famous picture series called ‘The Frieze of Life’ which constitutes his major works from the 1890s with the universal themes of love, angst and death. Van Gogh too had developed a project he called ‘Décoration’, a series of independent pictures that gained enhanced significance when shown together. As Munch wrote: “When they were positioned together there immediately arose a resonance between them and they became totally different than when displayed individually. It became a symphony.”
I exited the museum, having had all my emotions poked, tingled and stimulated. As I sat in the train back to Rotterdam, brimming of emotions, I marveled at the ability of paintings and painters to disarm and evocate its viewers. This evocation by Munch and Van Gogh will take some time to settle down.