Edvard Munch in Dialogue by Dieter Buchhart, Antonia Hoerschelmann and Klaus Albrecht Schröder

Review by David Starkey

“Much is suggested. Little is defined,” writes Margaret Dumas of Norway’s most famous painter. One of the contemporary painters represented in Edvard Munch in Dialogue, Dumas offers an observation that might well serve as a key to unlocking the sometimes opaque connections between Munch and the seven other painters featured in the exhibition and its companion book.   

The layout of show, which I saw in March at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, was circuitous. Rooms hung with Munch paintings alternated with spaces for the contemporary artists. Just as a visitor was acclimating to a clutch of Munch’s moody yet colorful canvases, a surprise—sometimes a shocking one—awaited one around the next corner. Initially disconcerting, the plan of the exhibition turned out to be bracing, and my second time through, I continued to be thrillingly startled by images I had just seen and was now coming to admire.

The catalogue, edited by Dieter Buchhart, Antonia Hoerschelmann and Klaus Albrecht Schröder, and published by Prestel, is beautiful, although it is arranged in a more traditional manner. Essays on Munch and the exhibition overall—thoughtful, accurate and blessedly brief—are followed by Munch’s paintings, then a portfolio of work by each of the “dialoguing” painters: Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Georg Baselitz, Miriam Cahn, Margaret Dumas, Peter Doig and Tracey Emin. It’s a thought-provoking mixture, though naturally some visual rejoinders are more successful than others.

Probably the least interesting response is the most obvious. Any Warhol created paintings and silk screens using overhead projections of Munch’s prints, including The Brooch, Eva Mudocci, Madonna and The Scream (which was not exhibited in Vienna). The catalogue claims that Warhol “impressed his own personal artistic stamp on [the prints] with wide-ranging expressiveness despite making hardly any alterations to the original compositions,” but that’s debatable. What I see are cartoon versions of Munch’s work, though possibly they were the most expensive works on display.

On the other end of the spectrum are the few pieces by Jasper Johns. The editors argue that “the characteristic crosshatching” and the “frame-like structural elements” of versions of Savarin and Copper and Mirror evoke Munch, but only a professional curator would likely make those connections.

A closer link can be found with British artist Tracey Emin, who writes that Munch is her “favorite artist in the whole world. He’s gentle, he’s emotional and he’s just a really, really fantastic painter.” Despite her reputation for sensational and sexually explicit work, Emin’s paintings in the show, while suggestive, are also delicate and open, with a few lines amid the splatter and scribble signifying both action and emotion. Marlene Dumas’s black and white watercolors perform a similar feat. She uses relatively few strokes to generate stories about sexuality that remain mysterious even if some viewers might find them disturbing.

The wonderful paintings by Peter Doig and Georg Baselitz evoke the broodiness of some of Munch’s landscapes. Doig’s Echo Lake, feels particularly Munchian. A man in black pants, white shirt and black tie, stands with his hands pressed against his head, Scream-style. A police car in the background tells us there has been trouble, possibly a drowning or a murder, but we are left to create the narrative ourselves. And a selection of Baselitz’s landscapes—the trees turned upside down, with their roots in the sky—bring to mind Munch’s sometimes vertiginous terrain.  

Miriam Cahn’s ghostly portraits of people in extremis may not immediately jibe with the portraits by the older painter, but upon reflection, the figures’ attitudes of shame, fear and exile are consistent with Munch’s basic vision of humanity’s lot.

Of course, the paintings by Munch are what make this exhibition so memorable, and outside of the Munchmuseet in Oslo, it’s hard to imagine such a collection of first-rate work appearing in a single building. In popular culture, Munch is known primarily for The Scream, and one of the important services provided by this exhibition is the showcasing of a range of his work, from prints made in the 1890s to a devastating self-portrait completed in 1943, a year before his death. While there are a handful of purely joyful canvases, including the book’s cover image, Madonna,Munch favored lonely figures, their faces often blank or sketched with just a few brushstrokes. Indoors, these individuals usually appear in claustrophobic and uncomfortable spaces (The Kiss, notwithstanding), but outdoors, even when the scenery is moody, there is a sense that freedom might be on the horizon. Indeed, the landscapes without humans are quite lovely in their Scandinavian starkness. For me, that was the major revelation of the show: Munch’s extraordinary talents as a painter of the natural world. I stood for a long time in front of The Yellow Log, dazzled by the way a fallen pine augured the likely fate of its vertical neighbors while still emanating its own self-contained beauty.

As I was leaving the exhibition, I pondered for a moment whether or not I wanted to carry a large and heavy hardcover book with me on the airplane that evening, but I only hesitated for a moment before heading to the cash register. I knew that what I’d just seen deserved to be memorialized and mulled over at greater length. It was a good decision. (“Edvard Munch in Dialogue” is on display in Vienna through June 19, 2022.)