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Edvard Munch Comes to the National Gallery of Art in DC

September 3, 2017 – January 28, 2018 | National Gallery of Art, West Building, Ground Floor - Gallery 22 | Edvard Munch (1863–1944), the Norwegian artist active in Paris and Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century, is famous for images that represent psychological states and give shape to subjective feeling. His use of color, essential to the visual impact and meaning of his prints, is generally regarded as highly personal. Without contradicting that interpretation, this exhibition places it in the context of the philosophical and pseudo-scientific movements of his time.

Near the turn of the century, ideas about higher dimensional energies were being stimulated by breakthrough discoveries in electromagnetism, x-radiography, and physics. The scientific exploration of invisible matter and properties convinced members of the mystical movement known as theosophy that essential realities lie beyond the human senses. Such ideas implied a challenge to traditional artistic emphasis on naturalistic representation.

Some artists used exaggerated or odd color in attempts to generate new meaning in their work. However, Munch went much further than most in applying theosophical ideas to the choice and combination of color. At the end of the nineteenth century, essays on clairvoyance, mesmerism (hypnosis), and other metaphysical concepts appeared regularly in leading literary and artistic journals. Theosophists claimed that thoughts generated auras of colorful shapes, or “thought-forms,” that could move through space: bright yellow connoted “highest intellect,” dark purple suggested “devotion mixed with affection,” and bright blue indicated “pure religious feeling.” Even though Munch claimed to select his colors at random, he was immersed in the literature of the time and was certainly aware of theosophical concepts such as thought-forms radiating energy. His journal describes “colours that encircled [a woman’s] head like a halo.” A friend confirmed that the artist claimed he could see auras around people.

Munch’s awareness and artistic application of these ideas is especially evident in his prints. By virtue of its usually limited scale and multiplicity, the medium afforded him the greatest freedom to experiment with color. The palette of his prints is often even more subjective and supra-natural than that of his paintings. Moreover, he could vary colors dramatically from impression to impression—and with them, literal shades of meaning.