Born in Scandinavia, a region known for long periods of cold and darkness, Edvard Munch shared the Symbolist mentality of artists and writers from that locale and throughout Europe in the 1890s. He rejected the Impressionist practice of studying effects of light on the external world and instead looked inward to explore themes of love and jealousy, loneliness and anxiety, and sickness and death. His personal history, with the premature loss of his mother and an older sister, as well as complex and unsatisfactory entanglements with women, provided him with a constant source of artistic motifs. The practices of painting, drawing, and printmaking were intertwined for Munch as he reinvestigated the same themes throughout his career. Printmaking was particularly conducive to this practice since he could save his plates, stones, and woodblocks for reuse time and again. Working with professional printers, or availing himself of a press in his studio, he explored some seven hundred fifty subjects in prints, varying his imagery in nearly thirty thousand impressions. Such experimentation can be seen here in red and black examples of The Sick Child I, and in three versions of The Lonely Ones, interpreted in both woodcut and etching. Munch sometimes used the same motif in a painting and a print, and a comparison of the two shows the print to be greatly simplified, achieving a sense of essence. Complex emotions are distilled into universal symbols by removing narrative references. Woodcut, in particular, lent itself to this approach. Munch's practice of cutting his blocks like a jigsaw puzzle in order to ink them in sections also enhanced a sense of isolation and abstraction. And the way in which he allowed the patterns of the wood grain to affect his compositions gave an indication of primordial significance. With this approach, the viewer senses artistic process as well as motif, something that would become an underlying component in much twentieth-century art.
Publication excerpt from Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004
Alluring and inviting, disturbing and threatening, Munch's Madonna is above all mysterious. This erotic nude appears to float in a dreamlike space, with swirling strokes of deep black almost enveloping her. An odd-looking, small fetuslike figure or just-born infant hovers at the lower left with crossed skeletal arms and huge frightened eyes. Forms resembling sperm pervade the surrounding border of this print. Little about the Madonna seems to conform to her holy title, save for a narrow dark gold band atop her head. This haunting apparition reflects Munch's alliance with Symbolist artists and writers.
Woman, in varying roles from mother-protector to sexual partner to devouring vampire and harbinger of death, serves as the chief protagonist in a series of paintings and corresponding prints about love, anxiety, and death that Munch grouped together under enigmatic headings. Madonna was first executed as a black-and-white lithograph in 1895. During the next seven years, Munch hand-colored several impressions. Finally, the image was revised in 1902, using additional lithographic stones for color and a woodblock for the textured blue sky. Self-trained in printmaking, Munch often used its mediums in experimental ways, such as the unusual composition of woodcut and lithography seen here.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 46