Last summer, some friends went to Norway and came back with stories of fjords and a set of Edvard Munch coasters for me. Apart from the knowledge that surely, he must have painted something else, I couldn’t think of any work of Munch’s beyond his most famous, The Scream.
It turns out he was quite prolific — producing around 1,750 other paintings along working in sculpture, graphic art, and theater design. Munch was as intense as he was prodigious, and his paintings deal with the big questions: mortality, sickness, and love.
After seeing a show at the Munch Museum in Oslo, SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels was so impressed he decided to organize a show of Munch’s work, much of it never seen in the U.S. Munch kept many of his paintings to look at himself, willing them to the city of Oslo after he died.
“I wanted to give people an understanding of the importance of Munch as a painter,” Garrels said. “Sometimes one work becomes a kind of icon and stands in for the artist himself.”
People think of Munch as a Symbolist whose important work came before the turn of the last century, Garrels added — and that’s not quite accurate. Although Munch, who lived from 1863 to 1944, was a superstar before 1900, he thought his best work came after he was 50, and three-quarters of his work dates from after 1900. With this show of 44 works, Garrels aims to show Munch belongs to the 20th century also and to remind us he was a contemporary of Picasso and Matisse, as well as Van Gogh and Gauguin, who he was often compared with in the first part of his career.
The exhibition’s title, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” comes from one of the last paintings Munch did. Dripping with symbolism, it shows the artist standing between a grandfather clock with no face or hands, symbolizing time ticking away, and a bed, which for Munch was a place of birth and death and passion and grief.
The show is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. There are 15 self-portraits — including with a cigarette (which has a smoky glaze from diluted oil paint and a flat brush), with the Spanish flu (which research shows he probably didn’t have) and in Hell. There’s also a gallery of dreamy paintings of twilight with soft purple skies, such as Starry Night; pictures of Munch in his studio; and of illness, including Death in the Sick Room and The Smell of Death. (His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a child, and when they were both teenagers, Munch’s sister died of the same disease.)
Another gallery, “Hallucinations,” doesn’t have Munch’s most famous work, an icon of psychological turmoil, The Scream. (The two versions in Norway are both too delicate to travel.) But it does have a precursor, Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair, which has the same bridge and ominously red sky as the more famous painting. It’s arguably even more striking, because we haven’t seen its reproductions on posters and refrigerator magnets (or satirized equally ubiquitously).
Garrels says Munch is relevant to contemporary painters — Jasper Johns did a series of paintings of Between the Clock and the Bed’s bedspread’s cross hatch patterns — and unique in not just his subject matter and relentlessness in looking at big and uncomfortable subjects, but also his lush style, assured brushstrokes, innovativeness, and bold colors. Throughout the decades of work represented in this show, we see how Munch kept looking, trying to evolve and reexamine, and to explore his subjects further.
Hearing on the radio that light consisted of waves and was therefore matter, Munch reflected that it reminded him of something he’d written in his diary nearly 30 years earlier: “I wrote that everything is in motion, and that the fire of life may be found even in a stone. … The variety of movement determines the form and variety of the matter.”
Motion, matter, and the fire of life — all are on display in these 60 years of the Norwegian artist’s paintings.
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, through Oct. 9, at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street, 415-357-4000, sfmoma.org.