“Wood is something that is alive,” Munch stated, and he saw the material as a source of primal energies to be released through carving. He depicted this scene in both an oil painting and a lithograph before finally making this woodcut. Munch used the physical qualities of the wood in the image, carving against the grain of the woodblock so that the horizontals of the sky run perpendicular to the vertical striations of the wood. With each cut into the block, Munch met the resistance of the grain, generating a tension in his process that mimicked the woodcut’s emotional subject.
Gallery label from 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, p. 44.