Monday, March 06, 2006

The Sexuality of Edvard Munch

The big Edvard Munch exhibition currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art seems to be drawing huge crowds. So it was when I was there, but commendably the Museum does not require advanced booking or a special fee.

Curiously, the exhibition does not include, as far as I could tell, even one of the famous "Scream" pictures, of which five are available (the stolen one has not been recovered). In compensation there is a variation, with a man’s head seen in receding profile, substituting for the frontal, masklike screamer.

In the course of his long life (1863-1944), Munch painted no less than seventy-two self-portraits, possibly a record for a modern artist. The MoMA gathering includes an important group of self-portraits from his later years, serving to flesh out that period, which is otherwise scanted (typically enough). Among these is a pastel identified as a self-portrait in the guise of an androgynous Sphinx with prominent breasts.

With his predilection for the female form, Munch is normally accounted a typical heterosexual artist, afflicted nonetheless with an obsessive fear of femmes fatales that seems excessive even for that early era of the battle of the sexes. However, there are hints of something more. Quite a large hint is a monumental triptych showing twelve or so frontal nude men posing at a Baltic resort. Stemming from 1907-08, it is entitled "Ages of Man." The era was one of enthusiasm for "physical culture," with nudism one of the main components. Still, this preoccupation is extraordinary. In Munch’s work I do not know of any comparable assemblage of female nudes, though of course there are plenty of individual ones.

Munch’s interest in the nude male goes back at least a decade, as seen in the enigmatic drawing "Flower of Pain" of 1898. The most explicit one may be the "ol' swimmin' hole" work of 1904, "Bathing Boys," where the pederastic subtext is hard to escape .The climax of this interest is the great triptych of 1907-08. A few months after finishing it, having experienced a severe suicidal episode, Munch entered the "nerve clinic" of Dr. Daniel Jacobsen in Copenhagen (October 1908). A number of causes probably contributed to his taking this step. His severe alcoholism was one problem, and we know that difficulties in handling one's sexual nature can lead to this condition. But of course there are many reasons for excessive drinking, something of a specialty, I understand, of northern European countries (nowadays, especially Finland.

The exhibition includes portraits of the artist’s intellectual peers, including Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, August Strindberg, and Harry Count Kessler. All of them registered various aspects of sexual anxiety, though of the quartet only Kessler is known for certain to have been homosexual. In his early years of maturity Munch belonged to the circle of the Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski in Berlin, a group known for its "advanced" ideas about sexuality. In the German capital Munch might have become acquainted with the research of Magnus Hirschfeld, the leading expert on homosexuality.

It is tempting to adopt a kind of zero-sum approach, and to posit that Munch's truncated heterosexuality (if that is the right way to put it) might have been the reverse of the medal of his (putative) repressed homosexuality. The gap left by diminished or compromised homosexuality would be filled by a homosexual component. A number of well-known paintings present adult woman as dangerous, almost vampiric, contrasting with the innocent depiction of girls.

This being said, I am not convinced by the zero-sum argument. Homosexuality does not result from a truncation of heterosexuality, but arises from a positive attraction to others of the same sex.At all events, the femme fatale obsession was widespread among European artists and intellectuals, beginning ca. 1870. In some instances it takes a particularly lurid form, for example, in the prints of Fėlicien Rops, who showed Woman (with a capital W) humiliating men, as the devil's partner. Most of these people were heterosexual. The only exception that comes to mind is Oscar Wilde, author of the play Salomė. (There is a fascinating gallery of this femme-fatale material in Bram Dijkstra's monograph.)So Munch's fascination with the dangerous, "phallic" woman seems to reflect a contagious meme that he acquired from his milieu. That the theme came to have an experiential significance for him (via his stormy liaisons) is also the case.

Still the puzzling evidence of Munch’s nude male paintings remains. Perhaps one day we will learn more about the sexuality of this fascinating artist, who seems to have been a Kinsey 1 or 2 in spirit, if not in practice.

PS: A friend, who resides in Norway, points out an interesting parallel. Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), who is responsible for a whole park full of nude statuary in Oslo (http://www.vigeland.museum.no/). "There are both male and female statues,but one gets the impression that Vigeland was more interested in the men--theytend to be more striking, more varied in size, shape, age, build, posture,ranging from the heroic to the comic, as if representative of the life force in all its abundance and diversity, whereas the women tend to blend moretogether, serving principally as images of fertility, at least as much sources of life as participants in it." Norwegians regard Vigeland as being under the influence of Edvard Munch's artistic program.

5 Comments:

Blogger littleoslo said...

we're thinking to relocate the munch museum in oslo to a more-centered place of the city. trying to let more tourist to know abt edvard munch.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are you tying to find homosexuality in some individuals to justify the normality of it. All downfall and end of a society/culture includes disorientation of morals-values and lack of fear of God. The bible states that wisdom is the fear of God and intelligence is to stay clear/apart from evil/sin. By the way the book Romans in the new testament specifically enumerates sexual acts considered an assault to continuance of life physically and spiritually.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous Bible quoting ass hat.... Fall of anciet roman and greek civilizations coincide with introduction of Christianity.... Coincidence much?.....

2:29 PM  

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