Meditation on a Munch Print
“An eyewitness described Edvard Munch supervising the print of a colour lithograph in 1896. He stood in front of the stones on which the head of a masterpiece was drawn. He then closed his eyes tightly, stabbed the air with his finger, and gave his instructions. ‘Print… grey, green, blue, brown.’ Then he opened his eyes and remarked, ‘Now it’s time for a glass of schnapps.’ The whole performance, including the air of melodrama and that shot of spirits, was highly characteristic.”
-Martin Gayford, The Spectator
Munch was a deliciously experimental printmaker. In Towards the Forest, he carved a woodcut block up with a fret saw like a Thanksgiving turkey. He used this technique so that he could have a jig-saw-puzzle-like freedom over the palette. He inked up the separate pieces in different colors and combined and recombined them for a grand total of sixty-one uniquely-colored impressions: forty-nine named “Towards the Forest I” from 1897, and twelve more called “Towards the Forest II” from 1915 (of which our print is one).
The image is a simple arrangement made up of only four or five components. A couple, a woman and maybe a man, cleave to each other so tightly that they become one being. They face a wall of trees and seem fearful to go forward into the inscrutable wilderness. There’s no path. Our only relief, our only air, is a strip of the sky: just a tiny peekaboo – about one-eighth of the image that can be glimpsed above the hard line of treetops. The trees themselves are blobby dark shapes, almost reaching the top of the composition. The feeling is claustrophobic and hemmed in. The outlines are sharp and flattening. The depth is shallow.
Munch loved repetition. Working with this single image for over eighteen years, he allowed himself the freedom to realize the full scope of meaning that an image can yield. And he didn’t stop there. Works such as The Scream, The Sick Child, Love and Pain/The Vampire, Death in the Sickroom, and Death Struggle also have multiple iterations. Munch was unapologetic about his love of the do-over: “The way one sees is also dependent upon one’s emotional state of mind. This is why a motif can be looked at in so many ways, and this is what makes art so interesting.”
A search of the 1897 printed versions of this block revealed many color variations: humans and land enveloped in a hazy blue and turquoise mist or in a desert-y tangerine smoke. In one, Munch plunged the clutching bodies into an almost-black darkness like an inky nocturne. In another, he went with a cherry red sky above the dark peaks of the treetops: a jagged edge of blood dripping down.
Less ghostly and atmospheric, the later 1915 impressions have bright blue delineated skies, green trees, and clear, crisp daylight, with the couple set staunchly apart from the natural scene. And as a result of the cut-up block technique, he was able to clothe the woman’s form in a dress in the newer prints, eschewing her derriere nudity from the 1897 versions. It’s astounding that even though this image is very simple and distilled, he nevertheless used it to birth over sixty separate versions.
In our print, the man (if he is a “he”) is like a cuddly monster – all in black, maybe wearing a suit. He is featureless and hunched, rounded over like a bear or sasquatch, whose thick furry arm wraps around the woman and clutches her to him. She clutches back but feebly. Her arm is only a thin, broken line of creamy white. A line also outlines the dark male figure on the right, but it’s a subtraction, an empty part of the print revealing a swipe of the background color: a red-to-cream vertical gradient. She is made up of a gradient, too…like a firecracker pop from an ice cream truck, with a red-orange head moving to a pale cream body, fading to a creamy yellow ochre below the waist. She wears a transparent gown of sorts with a train, but you can still see her booty. Is she naked, surrounded by a ghostly glow? Or is she translucently clothed in an ethereal garment? Only Munch knows.
The landscape in front of them is impenetrable, like a tall, unscalable prison fence: light olive-green phasing to medium sap green. Above, the tree-tops are silhouetted against a sliver of dirty cerulean sky with the wispy white woodgrain of the block used to indicate clouds.
Across the row of pines are sketchy, scratchy lines: light and quick dashed-off descriptions of branches, one or two fat boughs, and seven or eight telephone pole-like trunks. All are loose and noncommittal, feathery, and light.
Does the girl-bear-man-clump hover in the air or stand on a luminous lime-green stripe? Their feet never really seem to touch the earth. The man especially seems off balance, tipping into the woman on a tippytoe. Below their feet, it might be ground, or it could be water. They could be stalled in alarm – mid-step – like deer listening for a threat. Or they could be nature spirits in motion, floating smoothly across our field of vision above the waters of a still lake. Either way, they hide their faces into each other, forming a two-stone conglomerate: a light and a dark fused into one metamorphic yin yang by some volcanic catastrophe of the past.
Munch loved to clump things. And beyond this series of prints, Munch-clumping appears in several works. There’s Girls on the Bridge 1902, where six or seven girls in red, yellow, white, blue, and black dresses circle inward like a buffalo herd protecting a calf. Also, there’s the clump of workmen in the bottom right of Kiøsterud House, Åsgårdstrand 1905, and a cluster-clump of screaming figures in the darkness of The Storm 1893. Why separate when you can connect and clump? Two people? Clump and cleave. Four people? Chunk and clump. Persons huddled outside together against the elements? There’s safety in clumping. Munch says: We’re all connected; Let’s clump.
Munch was in the business of “soul painting,” so I wonder what he might have soul-meant in this one. Maybe his print is about fear of the future, of committing to a relationship, of “adulting” in general (he was responsible for the welfare of his whole family and saved them from destitution when his father died). Or maybe, instead, it is just a longing to release the tension of a tense life and allow oneself to cling and clump to someone.
”They entered into an opening in the woods – on both sides, tall spruces and birch trees stood – moist and dark against the evening air at dusk – the wet grass glittered. They walked back and forth in silence with bowed heads – the atmosphere around them was as solemn as in church. She leaned into him – and rested her head on his shoulder – From time to time, she pressed his arm to her breast. No, she was not angry at him – she was unhappy, and he was to blame – what could he do – if only he knew – It is getting dark, he said. Yes – And how wet the grass is – no walk there – there it is better. He helped her over a puddle. Thank you – she had placed his arm around her waist – holding each other’s hands. In the end, he kept only one of her fingers and pressed it hard. He looked down at her – she looked as though she was going to cry. Was it – so terrible that we cared a little for each other – the words escaped him. She did not answer – but he felt the pressure of her hand.” – from Edvard Munch’s journal.
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture, and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.