I was in New York City last week and had time to visit the smart Munch and Expressionism exhibit at the Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue. The exhibit runs through June 13, 2016 and is well worth a visit. We all know Munch's work iconic The Scream which sold for $120 million in 2012. Less known -to me at least - was Munch's profound influence on German modernist painting. The original Scream can be seen as the Ur-Expressionist work, which Munch produced more than a decade before the early Expressionist painters came together as Die Brücke in Dresden and Berlin. Munch himself arrived in Berlin in 1892 and stayed until he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908. His first solo exhibit in Berlin was noisily shut down by the conservative art establishment, which earned him much free publicity and the admiration of the younger German artists who were seeking the "shock of the new." From then on, his influence on the Expressionists was profound, and the Neue Galerie has displayed Munch's work along side many of the work's in the museum's remarkable permanent collection to convincingly illustrate the influence.
But Munch also learned new techniques and modalities from the German artists. From Emile Nolde he mastered woodcuts, which allowed him to reproduce his work with different color schemes and texture (as shown in the exhibit with The Kiss).
My personal favorite Munch painting displayed at this exhibit is Puberty (1895). Here a wide-eyed pubescent girl is sitting on the edge of a bed staring with a somewhat frightened or startled gaze at the viewer, her arms folded modestly to cover the pubic area. The light pours in from the left side of the painting, creating an ominous shadow which symbolizes her awakening sexuality. The painting brings to mind Frank Wedekind's drama Frühlings Erwachen - written approximately the same time.
Of course, any Munch exhibit must show The Scream, and the Neue Galerie does not disappoint: there is an entire room devoted to his 1895 pastel version, flanked on the side walls by works by other other artists inspired by Munch's masterpiece.
The original frame for this version is inscribed with a poem Munch wrote about the origin of The Scream:
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
The most striking derivative work displayed in the Scream room is Erich Heckel's 1917 woodcut Mann in der Ebene (Selbstbildnis). Here the pulsating lines emanating from the head of the artist as he contemplates the horrors of war echo Munch's blood-red waves of sky..
Interestingly, Heckel - a founding member of Die Brücke - was profoundly influenced by Munch. Yet until the end of his life he vociferously denied any influence whatsoever by the Norwegian master.