Posts Tagged ‘Edvard Munch’

Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin- First Version

I am a fan of the Symbolist painters from  around the end of the 19th century, artists like Edvard Munch, Gustav KlimtOdilon Redon. and many others created incredible works that were just a little beyond reality but beautiful and with a presence that lingered with the viewer. There are many great examples but one of those paintings with a lingering effect is the Isle of the Dead from  Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901).

Depicting an island where the bodies of the dead were interred, it is a powerful and somber image. Several locations are reputed to be the inspiration for this painting, including several tiny Mediterranean islands with similar cypress trees and chapels. Some believe it to be based on a cemetery in Florence, Italy near the artist’s studio where his infant daughter was buried.

Böcklin lost 8 of his 14 children to death, so the concept of death was something that was always near. This was not that uncommon in that time. Most families lost one or more children in early childhood and death was an accepted part of this world. During this time, at the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t unusual for a family to take portraits of their loved ones soon after they died.

Böcklin painted five versions of this instantly popular work for collectors. One version, the third, was bought by Adolf Hitler in 1933 and now hangs in the National Gallery in Berlin. Another, the fourth, was destroyed by a bombing raid in World War II and only exists now as a black and white photograph.

This painting had something  with which people deeply identified and it was the new popularity of mass produced lithographic prints in the time that gave it staying power. It was said that one couldn’t enter a Berlin home at the turn of the century without coming across a print of the painting on the wall. This image has maintained quite a bit of its following through the years, even having websites dedicated to it.

As I said, it is a powerful image that lingers in your mind long after you see it. I know it does for me. It has definitely been a huge influence on a number of painters and other artists.

In 1888, Böcklin created a painting, Isle of Life (see below), that he considered the converse image to his now famous Isle of the Dead.  It has living people, animals, greenery and a generally more upbeat appearance. But it certainly doesn’t come close to the soul jolting impact of its antithesis.

But you be the judge…

Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin- Fifth Version

Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin-Second Version

Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin-Fourth Version Destroyed

Isle of Life – Arnold Böcklin

Isle of the Dead – Arnold Böcklin- Third Version

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I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of Man’s urge to open his heart.

–Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter who lived from 1863 to 1944, is best known for his painting The Scream. Unfortunately, that’s the only painting of his most folks can recall. But he had a long and very productive career, creating work that was often dark and filled with anxiety. But it was always his own, pulling deeply from his own inner life and emotions.

His work may not resonate with you– not all of his work hits the mark for my own tastes–but there is no denying that it has the emotional power that can only come from an opened heart that seeks meaning in life, his ultimate goal as an artist.

Or as he said: In my art I have tried to explain to myself life and its meaning. I have also tried to help others to clarify their lives. 


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Harald Sohlberg-Night 1904 There’s a good possibility that you haven’t heard of  Harald Sohlberg, a Norwegian painter who lived from 1869 until 1935.  I know he was not on my radar until I stumbled across a few of his images.  In fact, there is not a lot of info about him outside of a short perfunctory bio.

This kind of stumped me but it wasn’t until I came across the short essay shown below that this made sense, giving me a lot more insight into the man behind the work.  I particularly identified with his connection with the landscape and his feelings as expressed in the final paragraph where, as an old man, he desired that people see his work not for the simple scenes they seemingly portrayed but ” for the pictorial and spiritual values on which I have been working consistently throughout the years.”

As an artist, that is your greatest hope– that people will look beyond the surface and see the emotional and spiritual content that the artist uses as a catalyst.  Take a moment and read this essay from a 1995 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in NYC that featured the work of Sohlberg and Edvard Munch.  At least take a moment to give these few Sohlberg’s paintings a good look.

In an obituary, Pola Gauguin [son of Paul Gauguin and a painter and art critic of the time] wrote that as an artist, Harald Sohlberg was alone and forgotten: “A name which was famous in its day.” Now that Sohlberg was dead, Gauguin thought, “the coldness which he helped surround it with, will thaw.” Sohlberg’s isolation was partly the tragic result of his wholehearted endorsement of the myth of genius as formulated by Romanticism and adopted by the Symbolists. Like Munch, he was obsessively preoccupied with denying that the influence of other contemporary artists had been important to him. He dissociated himself from the discussion about where he belonged in the history of art, relegating the origins of his artistic awakening outside of art to his own psyche.

Sohlberg wrote that his form sprang forth subconsciously from his first awareness of the landscape. The difference in texture of the sky and earth gave him a sense of standing on a heavy and firm planet gazing out into boundless space. He attributed the simple forms and great lines of his pictures to this first awareness of the landscape. The point of departure was the personal experience. Thus, the artist’s experience of his subject preceded the picture. Sohlberg was preoccupied with the concrete local landscape that surrounded him and his emotional reaction to it. The place, in itself, was charged with meaning. For this reason, where he sought his subjects was important. He experienced the landscape in Norway as nature in strong and intense moods and gave form to the echoes of these moods in his mind. He agreed with many of his generation who, taking their point of departure in Andreas Aubert’s writings about Norwegian art, were of the opinion that there existed distinctive, Nordic colors, clear and strong colors created by the clear, intense light of the North. Once artists realized this, it would be possible for an independent Nordic art to develop. Sohlberg believed that, along with the unique construction of the Nordic landscape, local color ought to result in a style of its own. Experience and interpretation of nature determined the choice of colors. For Sohlberg, the main color should assemble the picture and be as strong as possible.

The function of line in painting according to him was to express feelings. It could be lonely, down to earth, or melancholy. It could be willful and persevering as required. It should be developed according to the nature of the subject and the artist’s dialogue with nature. Because the picture was bound by a perceived reality, Sohlberg paid tribute to reality by portraying it naturalistically. But his gaze carried with it the legacy of picture formulas that transformed and adapted nature. He was an artist who rarely put a stroke on the canvas before the picture was clear to him in his imagination. As an artist, he was a substitute viewer. What interested him was his own experience and interpretation, regardless of how naturalistic his pictures appeared to be. Ideally everything in the picture was controlled by his will.

As an older man, Sohlberg longed for confirmation that the public saw the values he wished to impart: “it is probably true that for simple and naive reasons my works have aroused sympathy. But I maintain that they have by no means been properly understood for the pictorial and spiritual values on which I have been working consistently throughout the years.” The quotation contains three words which are keys to an understanding of Sohlberg: “Pictorial,” “spiritual,” and “consistently.” The pictorial is means for expressing the spiritual, and one was obliged to stick to the spiritual values one held true. 

– From Ivind Storm Bjerke, Edvard Munch, Harald Sohlberg: Landscapes of the Mind

Harald Sohlberg-A Street in Oslo 1911Harald Sohlberg-Night in the Mountains 1914Harald Sohlberg- After The Snowstorm Harald Sohlberg-Storgaten_Røros_1904

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Failure is inevitable. Success is elusive.

Steven Spielberg


I’ve written in recent posts about that rhythm that sometimes comes when I am readying work for shows, a deep groove filled with a self-regenerating energy that feeds on itself.  Just a wonderful feeling when I can stop for a moment and relish it.

But sometimes during these grand bouts of this rhythm  there are days when the wheels seem to come off the wagon and everything crashes.  Nothing works and every effort results in frustration and failure.  The rhythm that seemed onmipresent just moments before seems to have suddenly vanished completely and every action feels like I’m trying to move a huge boulder.  That was yesterday.

It started promisingly enough, working on the small detail work that is the grunt work of what I do.  Staining a few frames here.  Varnishing a few paintings there.  Then I worked for a bit on a piece in progress and stiil everything felt good, the synapses still sparking brightly. 

But then later in the morning  I pulled out a decent sized canvas, 2′ by 3′,  to start.  It had been treated with multiple layers of gesso and I felt like stars were aligned for this piece.  By the end of the day I realized I had misread these stars.  They were telling me to run.  Nothing worked at all on this piece.  The color was flat and every effort to bring it to life failed miserably and made the whole thing seem even more drab and lifeless.  Six or seven hours in and I step back to take it in and it is nothing but awful and the lightness that came with the rhythm has been replaced with a frustrating weight that rests heavily on my shoulders as well as in my gut. 

 I am at that moment verging on  screaming in a very primal way, like the character in the Edvard Munch painting.  My scream was replaced by a grab for the  paint and within minutes there is a layer of  black on the canvas, all evidence of my day covered in thick strokes of paint.  Seeing the failure of the day covered in black actually takes the edge off of the frustration I am feeling at the moment.  The flatness is dead and gone and I know that I will no longer be struggling over it, no longer struggling to bring a corpse back to life. 

But the frustration still lingers in the studio and I know that there will be nothing gained by fighting it.  I clean up and end my day, hoping that the new morning will find me refreshed and back in rhythm.

That being said, I have to go.  There’s a rhythm in here someplace and, godammn it, I am going to find it.  Like Darth Vader says above– failure will not be tolerated.

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One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below.  I felt tired and ill.  I stopped and looked out over the fjord– the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red, I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.  I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood.  The color shrieked.  This became The Scream.

–Edvard Munch, Diary 1889


This version of the classic painting The Scream by Edvard Munch has been in the news lately.  It is the last of the four versions, this one being pastel on board with a frame painted by Munch,  done by the Norwegian artist to be in private hands and it is coming up to auction in May at Sotheby’s.  Seldom does a seminal piece of work come up for auction and there is great anticipation for this sale, estimates currently hovering around the $80 million mark.   Yes, $80 million.

It’s really interesting how this image has resonated through the 120 or so years it has existed.  It really seems to connect with some existential chord within many people, a raw nerve capturing the often sheer anxiety of our coexistence with nature here on earth.  I think that most artists aspire to reach out through their work in such a way, to have the marks they make speak across time  and cultures.  To move in some way the everyman.  To have their work seen as timeless.

It’s something that an artist may never realize in this life.  The adulation of  the now does not always translate through time.  There are so many examples of artists and writers who were the most renowned creators of their era whose work never transcended their own time.  Their work remains a mere artifact of their own time whereas someone seeing The Scream might instantly connect on a basal emotional level where they see it as being of this very moment.

 So while part of me questions how the somewhat rough pastels strokes of the Munch work shown above are worth $80 million, I know that it is this rare air of timelessness that makes it so valuable.   The stuff that dreams are made of, as Sam Spade so famously said in The Maltese Falcon.  As in the movie, the stuff that dreams are made of are almost always priceless.

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