TWO EXPRESSIONS FROM EDVARD MUNCH

The dead mother and her child. Life and death are incomprehensible when you are forty inches tall. The dark, faceless figures of the grown-ups’ world bring no more sense to it. They are not trying to anyway, they only mind their grown-up-business. And so the world is collapsing to a muffled litany of useless condolences and childhood is a bloodstain on the soul. A long journey is starting of extricating oneself from the inexplicable –for the time being the whole wide world is suffocatingly narrow like a coffin. The faces of those we lost are left in us like penciled sketches, threatened by erasure and yet so clear. Loss is the gray fourth wall beyond which we cannot see, and feel that the universe is there breathing.

Edvard Munch obsessively recreated the same stories and compositions over and over again. The Scream exists as four paintings and pastels, a lithograph and a drawing. The same is true about The dead mother and her child. In his most famous work, the painter of open wounds had depicted existential anguish in colorful, metaphysical simplicity, but here he grounds the same feeling and helpless gesture into the real world of the theatre of a child’s mind. Munch lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was 5 years old. But expressionism is the opposite of egotism. The self, much like art, is a mere tool to access substance, though hefty and cumbersome when you don’t know how to use it, and let it get in the way. In that, the Sufi and the Buddhists say, grief is a humbling teacher.

Edvard Munch, Den døde mor og barnet, 1897-1899, Munch Museum, Oslo

Summer Night. The Voice. What we abstrusely call metaphors and symbols is just the way reality sometimes hits us deeper, with full force, and shakes our souls like a dream. Edvard Munch’s rendition of this Summer Night is eerie, but that is because the ‘midnight sun’ of nordic summers (what we Finns call the ‘nightless night’) is an eerie thing for the mind and the senses, a peculiar, uncanny atmosphere and lighting in which the worlds of day and night coexist in sleeplessness. And so the scene the painter sets (which like all his major works he repainted many times) is like a memory, at the same time misty and shady, and excessively real. Textures are simultaneously sketchy and rough and so detailed, almost palpable. And she’s standing there, her hands behind her back, taunting you softly, not quite innocent and not quite a seductress, with the combined lightness and gravity inherent to flirting, and what we see captured here is the tipping point when everything is about to change, or could have changed if no later than at that precise moment you turn your back. That is what truly feels unreal: how clear and obvious everything seems, and yet how inconceivably life-changing the consequences are. This is not about nostalgia, regrets and remorse, it’s about one of those rare moments of absolute naked truth with which Munch was obsessed, those moments we crave for so badly in our inner, intellectual, sentimental, political lives, moments that also terrify us, and that art only is able to capture and create, serving its purpose of making life alive. The painting’s other title is The Voice, but the young woman’s mouth is closed, defiantly closed, into a silence that means: your move, if you dare. Everything is silent in the forest and the voice you hear is your own voice. Why don’t you listen.

Edvard Munch, Sommernatt. Stemmen, 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo

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