Madonna—an erotic nude floating inside a blood-red border full of wiggling spermatozoa and, at the lower left, a ghoulish fetus—is one of the most provocative images in Munch’s intensely psychological oeuvre. While Munch’s title makes blasphemous reference to the Virgin Mary, his dreamlike figure, at once powerful and submissive, conflates that traditional Christian subject with other, more threatening female archetypes of the sort he often mined to develop his themes of longing, jealousy, anxiety, and death. To heighten the charge in his paintings and prints, he forged a modern style involving pulsating rings of color, sometimes offset by black.
Munch’s life experiences—including difficult relationships with women and a childhood scarred by the deaths of his mother and sister—informed his work. So did the cultural climate of the 1890s, when social mores and the status of women were on the cusp of sweeping change, and the possibility of greater sexual freedom was often tinged with fear. Revealing his ideas about the primal connections between pleasure and danger, life and death, Munch described Madonna as the climactic “pause when the world stops revolving.... Your lips, as red as ripening fruit, gently part as if in pain. Now the hand of death touches life. The chain is forged that links the thousand families that are dead to the thousand generations to come.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
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.