The Life & Work of Edvard Munch, Explored by Patti Smith and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Look beyond the high­ly dis­tressed gen­der­less fig­ure in the fore­ground of The Scream, one of the most famous paint­ing in exis­tence, and you’ll find plen­ty of women. While its painter Edvard Munch was a man, as his name might sug­gest, the rest of his body of work fea­tured not a few female bod­ies: 1895’s Woman in Three Stages, 1896’s Young Woman on the Beach, and in 1907’s The Sick Child, a high­ly per­son­al work by an artist whose moth­er and sis­ter both died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. Or take 1895’s Madon­na: “How­ev­er dra­mat­i­cal­ly effec­tive Munch’s use of col­or was,” writes Michael Spens of its black-print­ed ver­sion, “this option for black to express a mood of despair per­sist­ed, and worked with many suc­cess­ful results.”

It was sig­nif­i­cant, Spens adds, that Munch’s “depres­sive ten­den­cy was fre­quent­ly induced by women, or by Munch’s per­son­al lack of suc­cess in love there­by, as reflect­ed in his own affairs.” The painter may have had plen­ty of “trou­ble with women” in life, as the title of Spens’ essay puts it, and even now, 75 years after his death, he may find him­self occa­sion­al­ly charged with pos­sess­ing an objec­ti­fy­ing male gaze.

But that hard­ly stops artis­ti­cal­ly pow­er­ful women from admir­ing and even cham­pi­oning his work: singer-song­writer, poet, and visu­al artist Pat­ti Smith and actress and singer Char­lotte Gains­bourg, for instance, both appear in the short Now­ness doc­u­men­tary above to “delve into the pro­to-exis­ten­tial­ist ideas and psy­cho­log­i­cal themes” of that work at “Between the Clock and the Bed,” a Munch exhi­bi­tion that toured a few years ago.

Walk­ing through the gallery, Smith says she’s been “look­ing at Munch paint­ings for maybe 60 years, since I was very young.” Look­ing at 1913–14’s Weep­ing Nude, anoth­er of Munch’s women, Gains­bourg com­ments that “the choice of col­ors is incred­i­ble, because they’re quite ugly, but the whole thing is incred­i­bly beau­ti­ful.” To describe the beau­ty of 1895’s Death in the Sick­room, Smith explains that the paint­ing “express­es not the death as much as the effect the death has on oth­ers.” But for all he under­stood about oth­ers, Munch remained a man iso­lat­ed, “con­vinced that in order to be able to ful­ly express your­self artis­ti­cal­ly you have to be alone,” in the words of Munch Muse­um art his­to­ri­an Niki­ta Math­ias. “You have to be an out­sider, you need a cer­tain dis­tance to soci­ety in order to be able to describe what’s going on there” — a sen­ti­ment that can’t but res­onate with Smith, Gains­bourg, and oth­er cre­ators so ful­ly them­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free Online

30,000 Works of Art by Edvard Munch & Oth­er Artists Put Online by Norway’s Nation­al Muse­um of Art

Edvard Munch’s Famous Paint­ing “The Scream” Ani­mat­ed to the Sound of Pink Floyd’s Pri­mal Music

The Edvard Munch Scream Action Fig­ure

Pat­ti Smith, The God­moth­er of Punk, Is Now Putting Her Pic­tures on Insta­gram

Pat­ti Smith’s 40 Favorite Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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