The Neue Galerie is a grand space on New York City’s Upper East Side dedicated to early 20th century German and Austrian art. The museum’s admission lines have been long since Munch and Expressionism opened on February 18th, 2016 — largely because Edvard Munch (1863-1944) has not been the subject of a major New York retrospective in decades. The last explorations of Munch’s work were held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1965 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1979. Curated by Dr. Jill Lloyd and organized in conjunction with The Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, the Neue Galerie is Munch and Expressionism’s only stop.
The museum’s four exhibition rooms are the visual definition of Expressionism. Munch and his fin de siècle pre-World War I contemporaries looked past bourgeois artifice and attempted to show the reality of waking and dreaming worlds, combining the poetic and the grotesque. For Munch, Expressionism took on numerous personas. The source of his Madonna’s ecstasy is far from spiritual — she is a sensual being. He revisited this image several times with one color lithograph, including a pensive unborn child tucked in the corner. If Munch’s ideas of the Holy Family aren’t homespun, neither are those of the human family. Facial features are undefined or not seen at all as in Two Human Beings, The Lonely Ones. The well-dressed man and woman turn their backs on the viewer looking towards the horizon. A hauntingly beautiful oil on canvas, the source of the ‘loneliness’ is wide open to interpretation.
Hanging alongside Two Human Beings, The Lonely Ones is another vision of ‘love.’ Egon Schiele’s Lovers Man and Woman is no romance either — the artist faces the viewer while the woman is doing a variation of what in Pilates is defined as the ‘quadruped position’ – she’s flexible enough to reach the top of her head to the floor. The predominant color is brown and the mood unromantic. There are several possible story lines here, yet placing these paintings together goes beyond such simplistic labeling. Munch and his contemporaries did not look at the human condition the same way, but they united in their ideas about taking it apart.
The Scream’s face is distorted as well. The famous pastel on cardboard, on loan from a private collection, hangs in its own room along with several lithographs. Interestingly, the tortured soul’s face is sharper in the lithographs than the painting. The Scream is behind glass, with visitors kept at a reasonable distance.
The Scream has appeared on greeting cards, punching bags, mugs, posters on dorm and office walls, and even voodoo dolls! This is a tribute to a powerful image which is even more disturbing in person. The reds in the sky blend like clotting blood. The two figures in the background (friends of the artist) are equally in despair. The main figure’s torment renders it asexual. Munch’s own thoughts about The Scream’s conception are etched on the wall, reading, ‘I felt a scream pass through nature; it seemed to me that I could hear the scream.’ The Scream is symbolic of the artist (or perhaps any artist) existing outside of society. Given its composition date of 1895, it also signifies a world on the verge of World War I’s sweeping violence. Still, The Scream represents something even simpler: the personification of a rather bad day.