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Art review: Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen at the Courtauld Gallery

08 July 2022

Susan Gray finds her idea of him challenged

KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection 

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Summer Night. Inger on the Beach, 1889, oil on canvas

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Summer Night. Inger on the Beach, 1889, oil on canvas

LIFTING the lid on a familiar music box, but finding the figure, movement, and music all radically changed is the sensation of viewing “Masterpieces from Bergen”. Gone is the image of Munch as master of melancholy. Instead, a range of works take in Post-Impressionism and Pointillism, before moving to the characteristic stylised Expressionism.

Loaned from the collection that the mill owner Rasmus Meyer bequeathed to Bergen, the exhibition charts both Munch’s development and the relationship between painter and collector. Shown alongside the Courtauld’s rehung collection, it is an opportunity to see Munch’s work evolving in tandem with Paris artists, including Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose styles he referenced.

The 18-canvas show begins in the 1880s with 20-year-old Munch’s Morning (1884), which shows a young woman getting dressed, an unstockinged foot dangling above the floor, as she sits on an unmade bed. Contemporary critics said that the subject was not fitting for art, but a leading Norwegian artist recognised the painter’s virtuosity with form and colour. Munch challenged himself with rendering white surfaces, from the woman’s partially buttoned top to the rumpled bedlinen and sun-drenched tablecloth.

Sunlight also dominates in Inger in Sunshine (1888), portraying the artist’s younger sister on the coast at Asgardstrand, rapid brushstrokes capturing an en plein air style of rendering light and surfaces. Inger is seen slightly from below, squinting against the sun in her broad-brimmed ochre hat, a colour also used to shade her jawline and pick out the brooch on her white collar.

KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer CollectionEdvard Munch (1863-1944), At the Deathbed, 1895, oil and tempura on unprimed canvas

A year later, Munch returned to Asgardstrand with his sister, and painted the work heralding his distinctive style, “where Munch becomes Munch”. Summer Night. Inger on the Beach (1889) depicts Inger, with a pensive expression, sitting on the rocks as the sun goes down. The white of her dress is in stark contrast to the darkly hued rocks and blue-grey sea lapping to infinity. Placing a figure in surroundings that express the individual’s mood anticipates the artist’s distinctive style, evident in works from 1890s onwards.

As an adult, Munch did not practise the strict Lutheranism of his childhood, but his art is steeped in Christian symbolism. In 1909, he wrote: “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try to dissect souls.” At the Deathbed (1895) relates to the death of his sister Sophie when the artist was 14. He had already lost his mother.

Drawing on 19th-century devotional images of fatal illness, the painting reveals the psychological effect of grief in the outsized praying hands of Munch’s father, and the spectral, hollow-eyed faces of the women. The sheet over the barely outlined body suggests a shroud.

Woman in Three Stages (1894) is considered one of the key works of Munch’s Frieze of Life, a series concerned with love, anxiety, and death. On the right of the plane, an angelic figure, holding flowers, stands on the shoreline gazing out to sea. Next to her, a red-headed nude, her face heavily made up and feet planted apart, stares directly at the viewer. Behind her elbow, a thin woman in black fades into the background. The furnace red of the central figure’s hair is picked out in the fleshy, heart-shaped flower held by an anxious male on the right.

Red-haired femmes fatales were a key motif of the Symbolist movement, and the contrast between her and the young white-clad woman whom Munch described as a “saint” underlines the tension between liberated views of women promoted in his bohemian circles, and the traditional juxtaposition of pure women and worldly ones.

The red-haired temptress reappears in Man and Woman (1898), which can be interpreted as Adam and Eve after the Fall, with its male and female nudes against a green background, the man holding his head in despair. In Nude in Profile towards the Right (1898), the woman appears self-conscious, her arms folded in protection, as if she has just eaten the forbidden fruit. A similar work on paper, too delicate to be transported for this exhibition, is simply entitled The Sinner.


“Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen” is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 4 September. courtauld.ac.uk

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