Lives study

Edvard Munch’s powerful works are on show at the Courtauld, as John Evans reports

Thursday, 16th June — By John Evans

Summer Night- Inger on the Beach

Summer Night: Inger on the Beach, 1889, oil on canvas, 126.4 x 161.7cm

MELANCHOLY is here, if not The Scream, yet this enigmatic oil of a solitary figure by a shoreline perhaps raises as many questions of interpretation as those regarding Edvard Munch’s more famous painting.

Between 1891 and 1896 the Norwegian master made at least five versions of the scene and this Melankoli, is perhaps the most finished, says Petter Snare, director of KODE Bergen Art Museum, and is an excellent example of Munch using form and colour to evoke emotion or express ideas.

Even so there is discernible doubt displayed on examination of the brushwork around the subject’s head, which adds to an air of mystery.

This particular painting was acquired by the Norwegian industrialist and philanthropist Rasmus Meyer in 1909 directly from the artist whom he knew.

Meyer was one of the first people to build a collection of the artist’s work and it is 18 paintings of his, now held at KODE, that can be seen in the new Courtauld exhibition*, an unprecedented show, with 11 of the works displayed here in the UK for the first time.

Melancholy, 1894-96, oil on canvas, 80 x 100.5cm. All works Edvard Munch (1863-1944) KODE Bergen Art Museum, Rasmus Meyer Collection

The show examines Munch’s development over three decades, from his early major oil, Morning, from 1884, painted when he was 20, through to Self-Portrait in the Clinic, from 1909, when he was being treated for stress in Copenhagen.

Show curator Dr Barnaby Wright said Munch (1863-1944) “…is one of the most influential artists of the modern period and is still a touchstone for leading artists today. He was in turn influenced by the major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists represented in The Courtauld Gallery’s iconic collection”.

Highlights include paintings from the “Frieze of Life” series, including Melancholy and At the Deathbed, where the artist famously confronted the mysteries of the human condition.

Marie Helene Holmboe, 1898, oil on canvas, 116.5 x 117cm

But as Dr Wright says, “visitors will also find Munch’s seminal early paintings extraordinary, if less familiar”.

From 1888 and 1889, for example, there are two portraits of Inger, Munch’s youngest sister, from visits to Åsgårdstrand a coastal town on the Oslo fjord to which he would return regularly and where eventually he would buy a house. The later of these portraits has Inger by the shore and has been seen as a breakthrough work, large scale, innovative in composition.

Reportedly it was not to the liking of some critics when it was first shown in Oslo; yet it was seen as significant nevertheless.

Munch’s work demonstrated even then his ability to set a scene.

His use of, and interest in, photography is notable from early on and Summer Night: Inger on the Beach perhaps also reflects that. But Munch would later remark: “The camera cannot compete with brush and palette, as long as it cannot be used in Heaven or Hell.”

The strength of that belief is seen in another portrait, of his childhood friend’s wife, Marie Helene Holmboe. Its informality and surface simplicity captures what the artist said he aimed for in portraiture, to depict “the immediate gaze”.

The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Edvard Munch. Masterpieces from Bergen is at The Courtauld, Somerset House, WC2R 0RN until September 4. www.courtauld.ac.uk

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