Women and Water: The brilliance of Edvard Munch

Since seeing the works of Salvador Dali in my visit to Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid last year, I haven’t been flabbergasted and haunted by a painting. Dali for me is the best painter and how I’d wish to own one of his works. I am actually already planning a visit this summer to his hometown to see the rest of his collection.

But a couple of days ago, I was treated to another brilliance of an artwork. My boss who is Norwegian wanted to see the collection of Edvard Munch, a famous Norwegian painter and he asked if I wanted to come along. It was a sunny afternoon in Rotterdam and after having been imprisoned by the gloomy weather for many months now, I wanted a bit of sunshine. The collection is on display (until February 21) at the Kunsthal Museum (Museumpark, Westzeedijk 341).

I do not have much expectations. I do not know Edvard Munch and what can a Norwegian painter offer to a Dali lover like myself except bright pictures of the fjord, sailors and the sea. Not my kind of paintings.

That’s before I found out that he is behind the famous Scream, a chilling image of a man screaming on a bridge on a beautiful afternoon. The Scream wasn’t among the collection but I know the image from the internet.

When I walked inside the museum, the first painting I saw was the Madonna with the beret (?) with a red halo. Munch’s Madonna has different versions (even one with an image of an angry child with sperms swimming around the frame) and he usually draw a series. Her Madonna’s depict a naked woman in tranquility, like one who is waiting for a kiss. The strokes and the colors got into me and I knew right away that I have another favorite.

I went around the exhibit area and scanned the collection, fairly surprised that a man from such a beautiful and picturesque country can paint such dark and lonely images. I passed most of it, impressed by some but my eyes gravitated towards a painting called Woman in Three Stages. It is a lithograph of his impression of a woman. A very arresting impression.

“So what do you think about it?,” asked my boss when he noticed that I couldn’t take my eyes off the painting of the three women, one dressed in black, a naked one and a girl in white. All of them have their loose and flowing.

“She is a seductress, a sinner and a saint,” I said, the image slowly being inked in my mind. He nods his head and walks away while I was rooted to the ground before the Woman in Three Stages. After a good 15 minutes, I moved away from the painting and view the other ones.

From what I’ve seen, Munch’s favorite subjects were women and water. Almost all of his works have a certain body of water on it, a river, a lake, the sea. This can of course be attributed to Norway being surrounded by water. As my boss would say, “you can’t go to Norway without being confronted with water, even in the mountains, you will still see the waters.”

He uses fluid strokes, his colors are dark and very intense that even what supposed to be a forest of evergreens with fallen trees looked ghastly to me. His women are sad and usually portrayed as depressed. According to his life story written all over the exhibit hall, even during the time that he can hire models, he will make them weep. That became quite his trademark.

As I looked more into the other paintings, I concluded that he was once madly in-love but was later on heart-broken. I even suspected that some of his works that involved lovers were products of an affair. I later found out that he was in love with a woman named Tulle Larsen, who had been a great influence in his works. He refused to marry her and she tried to kill herself. In the incident of her suicide attempt, Munch injured his hand which made it difficult for him to paint.

Not all of  Munch’s paintings are dark and lonely. There are ones with bright colors, portraying the very beauty of Norwegian scenery like the tiny photo of a boy fishing in the lake, an image that can only be seen from a window or the estate of Dr. Linde. But again, these are not my kind of paintings. After a while I went back to the Madonna in Three Stages.

As I read on the story of his life, I was actually able to guessed what he thought of that particular painting. It was to portray a woman as a saint, a whore and a forlorn character. And I wanted to take her home and display her to my room.

I was so mesmerized by her that I asked my companion, “how do you actually look at a painting?” To which he answered a dry “I don’t know” and said that the dreary, heavy art are not his type. He is more of a landscape-painting kind of person. “And you?” he asked back.

“Munch’s paintings, I didn’t just look at them. I felt them, felt him.”

And until now, I can still feel the heaviness. He is still haunting me.

I don’t know much about Munch but if you are curious, Wikipedia has an extensive entry on him.