Explore This Work

“Now I am almost longing for the polar night . . . with the moon sailing through the profound silence. It is like a dream . . . . There are no forms, no cumbrous reality—only a vision woven of silver and violet ether, rising up from earth and floating out into infinity. . .”

Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North (1897)

Many of Munch’s paintings and prints carry an ineffable quality of mystery and psychological unease, their figures and places transformed into emblems of interior states of being. Tragedy, emotion, and tumultuous personal relationships ruled Munch’s life and fed his art. “Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives,” the artist once wrote in a letter. Munch drew artistic sustenance from his environment as well as from within: his native Norway, to which he returned after successful spells in Paris and Berlin, always entranced him. Its seashores and blue twilight hours are prominent in numerous works including the series of color woodcut prints, Two Women on the Shore.

This 1920s version is one of six variations of Two Women on the Shore in the NGA collection. The set of six is unique in that the impressions were personally selected by Munch for exhibition together, and given together by the artist to a friend. Munch carved the original wooden block used to make impressions of the image on paper in 1898 while he was still in his thirties. As with many of his prints, Munch continued to modify the block and add handpainted or independently printed elements to it over the course of decades. He sawed the block into pieces so he could print different colors together (a telltale white line around some of the figures reveals the edges of each piece of the block). The yellow sun-moon form is printed from a paper stencil Munch applied to the woodblock.

The six NGA versions of Two Women on the Shore are strikingly different and deliver a range of emotional and tonal effect.  The setting may be connected to Åsgårdstrand, a seaside Nordic town where Munch purchased a summer home to which he returned over the years. In this variant, a notational sun-moon dips lower in the sky, carving a shimmering path across the water. During the summertime in Norway, the sun never entirely sets, and instead an hours-long blue twilight separates the days. The print shows a young woman, erect, is absorbed by the sea’s infinitude, while an older, draped woman, formless and bent, gathers at her knee. The two take on a mythological cast: is the old woman, specterlike, a forboding of death? Or, is she perhaps a procuress, preying on the young woman’s innocence? The young and old women might also allude to the cycles of life, sexuality/fertility, and the end of childbearing.

The young woman seems psychologically removed, impervious to the older’s menace. Her long flowing hair is blood red and divides a swath of greenery from the shoreline, its lapping waters indicated by dark blue. Perhaps the young woman is situated between two worlds—her body landlocked while her spirit is transported beyond the horizon.  The shape of the sun-moon and its reflection, which suggests both a figure and is often read as a symbol of masculinity, hints at a longing for union, and perhaps freedom from the preternatural blackness pooling about her.

Munch generates an ambiance and mood from highly abstracted forms and colors.  During his travels in Europe, Munch had become aware of and influenced by the expressive use of color by artists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh. Munch’s colors are vivid, but not exuberant or joyous.  For Munch, the landscape is not a generative force, but reflective of the human condition.

About the Artist

Edvard Munch was born near Christiania (now Oslo), Norway, in 1863. His parents Christian Munch, a doctor, and Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, from a family of once-successful seafarers, shared strong religious beliefs. Both sides of the family had experienced reversals of fortune and status over time and had entered the working class. Edvard was the youngest of five children, who along with their mother, were sickly and suffered bouts of tuberculosis and bronchitis, diseases common in poor, urban neighborhoods. The artist’s mother died when Munch was five as did his beloved eldest sister, Sophie, when he was a teenager. Munch’s father took the deaths as a sign of god’s disfavor and required the remaining children to continually seek forgiveness through prayer and penitence. At 70, Munch reflected, “Sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.” 

Not all was darkness for Munch, however. An aunt, Karen Bjølstad, moved in to manage the household after his mother’s death, and it was she who taught the siblings to draw and created art projects with them. Munch’s father, having come from an educated and literary family, sometimes read history and adventure stories to the children that became fodder for drawings and artistic interpretation. The children’s drawings were carefully preserved by Christian Munch; Edvard’s, from age 12, are in the collection of the Munch Museum in Oslo.

After briefly studying engineering at his father’s behest, Munch enrolled at the Royal Academy of Design in 1881, determined to be a painter. The faculty recognized his talent, expressed initially in realist-style landscapes. Norway was at this time moving toward independence from Sweden (achieved in 1905), its economy prospering from the seafaring and timber trades. Creation of a recognizably “Norwegian” style of landscape painting symbolized pride in the land’s burgeoning autonomy.

But Munch soon shifted gears, joining a group of bohemian artists and writers with another agenda—individual expression. Politically-minded, they advocated secularism, social equality, and free love—expressed in their art with erotic subjects—but the government ultimately suppressed them. The circle remained connected, but dropped their political agenda, turning inward and to personal relationships for artistic subjects. An early painting of Munch’s from this period, The Sick Child, 1885-1886, harked back to his sister’s death. An experimental work, it was harshly criticized upon exhibition for its “unfinished” appearance.

From this point on, Munch returned to landscape and nature for inspiration, but this time departing from realism and light effects inspired by French impressionism into a more expressive use of light and form. His first solo exhibition in Christiania in 1889 won him a grant to study drawing in Paris. This event began a period that lasted until about 1909 during which time he lived and exhibited abroad in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, spending his summers in Norway. He became acquainted with the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, as well as the expressive lines of art nouveau, an ornamental style based upon natural forms that influenced art, architecture and design.

Reception to Munch’s art work outside Norway was mixed and occasionally acid. A Berlin critic wrote of Munch’s work, “One can no longer speak here of Nature, only of twisted imaginations, atmospheres swimming in delirium, sick and feverish hallucinations.” Munch was undeterred and continued to probe mystical and spiritualist ideas in order to give form to the invisible life of the psyche and imagination. He also explored the new field of psychology gaining ascendancy through the work of Sigmund Freud. Munch’s notoriety eventually benefitted him as he gained a reputation within the avant-garde community. He developed a following and core group of patrons in Germany, in particular. Munch’s iconic painting The Scream, 1893, is from this period.

Shortly thereafter, around 1894, Munch began to experiment with the art of printmaking. Although he initially pursued the medium to increase his output and sell more work, he remained engaged with it for the rest of his life and became an influential and innovative practitioner of woodcut and lithography, inspiring the German expressionists to revive woodblock printing. Munch’s printmaking practice defied conventions—he preferred to alter his prints individually, rather than create an edition of like images, and never sequentially numbered his output nor knew how many prints based upon a particular motif that he may have produced. His lifetime output of prints was extensive – approximately 15,000, many of which were individually colored or modified.  Munch also developed an interest in photography, which he used mostly as an aid to his painting, including the portrait commissions that came as his reputation grew. He even experimented with amateur filmmaking, capturing scenes of urban life in Oslo.

After the turn of the twentieth century, Munch was well established as an artist, his work collected by the National Museum, Oslo. But the psychic toll of his constant travels and commission work, a tempestuous lovelife (one relationship ended with Munch’s hand being shot and loss of a finger), and alcoholism led the artist to seek a “rest cure” in 1908 at a health clinic in Denmark. Afterwards, he returned to Norway where he purchased several small homes/studios. He worked on a large commission for Oslo University’s Festival Hall from 1909-1916 and gradually withdrew socially to lead a quiet life. The artist made prints and paintings that explored, sometimes exhaustively, certain motifs such as landscapes formed of sinuous lines, couples merging, and isolated figures that had engaged him since the beginning of his career. Munch continued the Two Women on the Shore subject in a painting of 1934-1935.