If all you’ve seen of Edvard Munch is his now-iconic painting “The Scream,” then you’re in for a dark and exquisitely anguished surprise at Tacoma Art Museum.
“Edvard Munch and the Sea” — up through July 17 — doesn’t include that famous work. Instead it has an entire gallery full of the same anguish, hope, despair and masterful technique. With 26 prints, two drawings and one painting by the 19th-century Norwegian expressionist — plus a certain Warhol imitation — this show offers a chance to delve into the mind behind “The Scream” with pure line and deep shadow as your guides.
It’s a huge coup for Tacoma Art Museum. The little-museum-that-could has been making a big name for itself recently with a Northwest-by-West focus, increasingly big collections and shows that push social boundaries. But a major European master wasn’t exactly in its sights — until Pacific Lutheran University offered to help with a show that honored the Norwegian-founded college’s 125th anniversary. Suddenly, honorary Norwegian Consul Kim Nesselquist was connecting the museum with the world’s biggest private Munch print collector, Sally Epstein, who opened more doors to make possible a show that’s the West Coast counterpart to the one now at New York’s Neue Galerie, “Munch and Expressionism.”
As museum curator Margaret Bullock puts it, “Having a Munch show here at TAM still feels surreal.”
In fact, after you spend an hour delving into Munch’s high-octane angst, the whole thing starts to feel surreal. Bullock chose her prints to reflect Munch’s love of, and obsession with, the sea, and has organized the gallery logically to divide between works that simply use the sea as landscape or object, and those that use it as a symbol for longing, love, escape, bliss or death. But pervading every work, even the tiny seascape drawing in purple crayon, is the same melancholy, a visual darkness, that’s somehow rendered more powerful with the black-and-white starkness of prints.
And if you still want to see “The Scream,” you’ll find a hint of it in almost every work.
In the landscape section, for instance, there’s “Girls on the Bridge.” On that very same pier as in “The Scream” (the Åsgårdstrand pier), two neat girls stare listlessly out over dark, eerie shadows, while a third — hat off, hair wild — looks past the viewer with round, panicked eyes.
In his “Two People” series of drypoint aquatints, Munch, who had in 1895 already painted “The Scream,” starts to explore more subtle relationships and reasons for despair. While the woman gazes longingly out to a sea as pale as she is, the man — etched black, like the swirling rocks — stares down at her feet, slumped, as if he’s already lost her.
Munch was a master printer, making more than 30,000 impressions in his career and experimenting constantly with technique and color; and his woodcut of the same scene gives a real dimensionality to the landscape parts, just as his color-fields did in “The Scream.”
Things get darker farther around the gallery. Two of the “Madonna” lithograph series are there, astonishingly major pieces (a similar one sold at auction for $1.95 million in 2010) and much more powerful than the painting that came first. In both, a woman leans back, eyes closed in a blissful, love-making state. But unlike the painting, the prints surround her with a border (blood-red in one, sepia-toned in the other) of swimming spermatozoa, a new microscopic discovery at the time. Down in one corner is a deathly grotesque fetus, with spindly limbs and oversized head, crouching like a threat. In the print, too, the etched shadows gently grasping the woman’s throat and breasts are far more present.
Love and death continue to intertwine in the “Attachment” series, in which a woman and a man face each other before the ever-present, ever-swirling sea, her hair encircling both like cobwebs. The “Alpha and Omega” series is a dreadfully raw story of an Adam who is abandoned by an Eve who prefers to consort with animals. His agony on the beach as she swims away on a stag merges into the sky and sea, exactly like in “The Scream,” and when he drowns her upon her return, her hair melts into the water in typical Munch symbolism.
And then there are the people on the Åsgårdstrand pier in “Angst,” a lithograph made one year after “The Scream” and featuring the same blood-red waves in the sky, the same ominous curve of coastline. But instead of screaming, the people on the pier mask their despair with disturbingly bland, smiling faces: “pale corpses,” as Munch wrote in his journal, running along “a twisted road … to the grave.”
Finally, there is a version of “The Scream”: Andy Warhol’s screenprinted tribute, which changes the grass to pink and adds a dash of neon but otherwise looks surprisingly Munchian.
It’s difficult, in this age of “Coraline” and zombies, to look at Munch’s mouthless faces with their squirrely-crazy eyes and not assume death and horror. “The Scream” has become an entrenched icon for psychological pain, despite Munch’s earnest wish in his journal that he not create work that “could be regarded as kitsch.” And his journal itself, which Nesselquist excerpted as an audio-guide on the STQRY phone app and which is for sale in the museum store, delves deep into the painful emotions that would bring Munch (along with alcohol addiction) to a self-imposed rehab in 1908.
Even Nesselquist, a Norwegian who works in the university’s advancement office, agrees that Munch “represents Norway at the time in his persona and culture” — underlining the stereotype of Norwegians as dour and depressed.
But as Bullock points out, Munch as an expressionist was interested in all emotions, not just dark ones. In this serene show without the distraction of color, we can step out of zombie mode and see beyond “The Scream” to the rest of Munch — like the joyful pastel brushstrokes in the show’s one and only painting, a view over his late-in-life home on the Kragerø coast. This was an artist who found so much strength in the sea that he actually painted on the beach, often leaving his work out for days in rain and snow. The sea wasn’t just wavy horror behind a pier; it was love and ecstasy and hope. By picking up on this dichotomy, and expressing it through the clear architecture of printmaking, the museum gives visitors a much more nuanced idea of Norway’s most famous artist.
Edvard Munch and the Sea
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through July 17.
Admission: $14 adult; $12 senior, student, military; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Other TAM events: Printmaking workshop, noon-4 p.m. Saturday ($60); curator Lunch and Learn, noon May 4 (free, in the café); I-Scream Social with coloring page, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. June 21 (free); waterfront sketching workshop, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. July 16 ($25).
Other PLU events: “Munch and Medicine” lecture, 4 p.m. April 23 (free, at Scandinavian Center); “Dreamscapes: Munch, Memory and the Sea” lecture, 7 p.m. May 12 (free, at Scandinavian Center).
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.
How do you say “Munch”? You don’t munch on art. Pronounce the name of this Norwegian artist ED-vard MOONK. (Put a tiny throat-clearing at the very end, if you like.)
So where’s “The Scream”? “The Scream” is undoubtedly Edvard Munch’s most famous work. But it’s not in the Tacoma Art Museum for a few good reasons: Security (one of the four versions was stolen from an Oslo museum in 2004); value (at nearly $120 million it became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction in 2012) and fragility (all four versions are on 120-year-old cardboard, and were handled and stored poorly by Munch).