Exhibit of the week: Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth

The Art Institute of Chicago's "thrilling" exhibit of 86 paintings by Edvard Munch is likely to alter viewers' perception of the Norwegian artist.

Exhibit of the week

Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth

Art Institute of Chicago

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Through April 26

Edvard Munch did much to shape the popular image of “the artist as solitary, tormented, possibly insane genius,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. But a “thrilling” new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago suggests that the Norwegian painter often merely played at madness, in order to attract attention to his radically experimental paintings. Not that they needed much help—their pulsing eroticism and intentionally crude style were quite shocking enough to contemporaries. Yet Munch advanced the portrayal of emotional states to a level still unmatched. The distorted, contorted figures in his works “are not mad, but paralyzed by oceanic feelings of grief, jealousy, desire, or despair.”

This exhibition will be remembered as one of “the institute’s finest of the last 30 years,” said Alan G. Artner in the Chicago Tribune. The curators have not only gathered nearly 86 of the finest works by Munch—“incidentally, it’s pronounced ‘moonk’”—they’ve complemented these with dozens of paintings by his contemporaries, borrowed from museums here and abroad. “For each piece by a familiar artist,” such as van Gogh or Monet, “there is at least one counterpart by an artist known to Munch but new to us.” Some, such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Vilhelm Hammershøi, are major Scandinavian artists I never thought I’d see exhibited in an American museum.

In side-by-side comparisons, we can see that Munch’s style and themes were hardly the result of madness, said Joel Henning in The Wall Street Journal. Rather, they were “derived from art that he saw and loved.” One remarkable room shows Munch’s Melancholy (1894) next to Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives and van Gogh’s Weeping Woman. Far from suffering by the comparison, Munch’s “isolated figure, eyes downcast, morose, and lonely,” seems as iconic and unforgettable as his angst-ridden Scream. While neither version of that famous painting made the trip from Europe, they’re hardly missed. In fact, their absence helps the audience appreciate other major works, such as Madonna (1895), an erotic shocker that “depicts a beautiful naked woman, eyes almost closed, red lips slightly pursed,” as if at a sexual climax. This painting, not The Scream, is Munch’s true “masterpiece.”

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