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.
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.