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Norway’s Tortured Heart

Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul holds in store a rare visual feast for visitors to The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. The exhibition will feature 87 paintings and 50 works on paper and will be accompanied by a major publication that will include several essays by distinguished art historians as well as extensive documentation of Munch’s art and career.

MoMA Chief Curator at Large Kynaston McShine details the artist’s pioneering expressionist tendencies. “Munch aspired to an art created of one’s innermost heart,” he says. “There would be no more paintings of interiors, paintings of people reading and women knitting. There would be paintings of real people who breathed, felt, suffered and loved. Munch’s use of color and brushstroke certainly contributed to the expressive quality found in many of his paintings.”

Munch’s forceful and suggestive employment of psychological and emotional themes is considered to have been an authoritative influence on the birth of German Expressionism in the early 20th century. He was an artist whose social awareness and ability to express mankind’s primitive fears and anxieties were always only brush strokes away from canvas. “Munch’s anxiety,” McShine believes, “ultimately had a positive effect on his work, an observation even made by Munch himself. Munch explained, ‘this fear of life has raged in me since the thought entered my mind…Nevertheless, it often seems to me that I am dependent upon this fear of life—it is necessary to me—and that I would not want to be without it.’“

Indeed, it is no revelation that Munch’s stormy, agonized art is said to have been shaped not only by the tragedy of the artist’s time, but more significantly by Munch’s life story. His parents, a brother, and a sister all died while he was still in his youth. “The untimely death of several of Munch’s close relations profoundly affected the artist,” explains McShine. “For example, Munch’s Sick Child motif was a direct response to the illness and subsequent death of his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. Her death was also the source for Death in the Sick Room and By the Deathbed/Fever. Munch was preoccupied by the idea of death as he was of all aspects of life.”

The upcoming exhibition will be dramatically extensive, showcasing Munch’s artistic achievement in its true richness and diversity, and surveying his career in its entirety from 1880 to 1944. Beginning with the artist’s early portraits and genre scenes, the exhibition will chart Munch’s move away from Norwegian naturalism towards an exploration of modern existential experience unparalleled in the history of art. As it follows each phase of his career, it will show Munch’s struggle to translate personal trauma into universal terms and, in the process, to comprehend the fundamental components of human existence: birth, love, and death.