2. The Kristiania Bohème and the first one-man exhibition, 1884–9
Source: Oxford University Press
Artists, writers and students who opposed bourgeois society and morality formed a loose association referred to as the Kristiania Bohème. The spokesman for the group was Hans Jaeger, an anarchist writer who advocated an anti-bourgeois life style of emancipation and freedom focused on sexual liberation, social equality and the rejection of Christianity. Demoralized, however, by government repression and deprived of a political base, the artists turned away from socially engaged art to a fundamentally subjective and introspective art. Munch spent much of 1885–6, the most active and public years of the Kristiania Bohème, working on a single painting, The Sick Child (Oslo, N.G.). It depicts a teenaged girl propped up against a pillow in a large armchair, next to an older woman who bows her head in despair and grief. Grounded in Munch’s recollections of his sister’s death c. ten years earlier, in accordance with Jaeger’s dictum of the primacy of personal experience, and possibly influenced by the contemporary success of thematically similar paintings in Scandinavia and Central Europe, The Sick Child was conceived in a variation of Impressionist technique, but in the course of a year-long alteration Munch built up thick coagulations of paint into which the final remaining image was more scratched than painted, and over which a veil of thin rivulets of paint was placed (to be removed during a partial repainting c. 1893). In his experimentation Munch created effects similar to those achieved in the late 1880s by James Ensor and Vincent van Gogh in works today recognized as precursors of 20th-century Expressionism. In Norway in 1886, however, there was no measure by which The Sick Child could be judged. Exhibited at the 1886 Høstutstilling in Kristiania as A Study, the painting was vehemently attacked by critics and fellow artists alike, so that only Hans Jaeger in the newspaper Dagen dared to defend it, describing it as an intuitive work of genius.
Other works by Munch of the period of the Kristiania Bohème focus on his experience of sexual relationships, in particular his jealousy-ridden affair with Emily ‘Milly’ Ihlen, the wife of his cousin Captain Carl Thaulow and identified as ‘Mrs Heiberg’ after 1890 in fragmentary, diary-like, semi-fictional notes modelled on Jaeger’s novellas. In the paintings Hulda (1886; destr.) and The Day After (1886; destr.; 1894–5 version, Oslo, N.G.) he posed women aggressively proffering their naked bodies or in abandoned sleep on rumpled beds next to nightstands filled with empty liquor bottles. Private icons of the Kristiania Bohème’s faith in free love, such images hung in Munch’s studio as objects of personal devotion and melancholy recollections of failed romance, unable to find public audiences while government efforts at censorship were renewed.
Devastated and disappointed by the reception and rejection of The Sick Child, his erotic motifs repressed, Munch reverted to a more common Naturalist style after 1886 in renditions of subjectively evocative landscapes and in portraits that more readily found a market than did his experimental bohemian works. In a daringly provocative, speculative gesture he collected his works into a large one-man exhibition at the Studentersamfund, Kristiania, in April and May 1889, an event unprecedented in Norway except in the contemporary celebration of the renowned, elderly academic landscape painter Hans Fredrik Gude. The works Munch exhibited demonstrated his move from Impressionist experiment with form dissolved in the summer sun towards a more firmly modelled Naturalism in which effects of light were manipulated for emotive value. In place of the failed Sick Child he substituted a massive new painting on the same theme, Spring (1.69×2.64 m, 1889; Oslo, N.G.), in which Munch concentrated on effects of sunlight pouring in through a brightly illuminated window, an emblem of hope set in contrast to the desperation of the convalescent girl and her concerned companion. With this remarkable demonstration of painterly bravura and a monumental portrait of Hans Jaeger after his release from prison (1.10×0.84 m, 1889; Oslo, N.G.) as its centrepieces, the exhibition succeeded in obtaining for Munch a state grant to study drawing with Léon Bonnat in Paris. In 1889 Munch spent his first summer at Åsgårdstrand on Kristianiafjord (now Oslofjord), a retreat to which he consistently returned and that for 20 years provided the setting for innumerable paintings.
From Grove Art Online