By the deathbed Edvard Munch 1915 Symbolist art painting 1915

“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch

1915 By the Deathbed (Fever) oil on canvas 174 x 230 cm Munch Museum, Oslo.jpg
“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch (1915)

 

Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.

 

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In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.

In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.

The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²

This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.

In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.

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Henri Matisse Window at Tangiers

Henri Matisse: Window at Tangier

Henri_Matisse,_1911-12,_La_Fenêtre_à_Tanger_(Paysage_vu_d'une_fenêtre_Landscape_viewed_from_a_window,_Tangiers),_oil_on_canvas,_115_x_80_cm,_Pushkin_Museum

 

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the link between any single 20th century art movement and Henri Matisse. His use of a comprehensive range of styles and approaches in creating his broad and highly influential oeuvre is paralleled by few among his contemporaries. With that in mind, it’s often useful to speak of larger trends, mentalities, and tendencies in Europe when discussing Henri Matisse. In Window at Tangier (La Fenêtre à Tanger), two such tendencies are striking: Essentialism and Orientalism.

Essentialism in European art can be described as the tendency to distill shapes, colors, and other compositional elements into their most basic and elemental expressions. In Window at Tangier, we see this in both the reduction of the colors into large fields of yellow, ultramarine blue, and very pale blue and in the rendering of the tree line and window pane into large areas of more-or-less unified color. Part of what makes this piece so impressive is the impact created by the harmony in the simple and beautiful shapes and hues.

Interestingly, it is difficult to extricate Essentialism from Orientalism entirely. The trend of essentialism that gained traction around the early years of Matisse’s career was inspired largely by Japanese printmaking that was arriving from Japan. Artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were very popular at the time, and they inspired artists all over Europe to create similar evocations of harmony. The Tonalist movement of James Whistler, for instance, drew on the techniques used in Japanese prints to create a new language of interior and landscape painting that spread even to the Americas.

 

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Hokusai, Suspension Bridge
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James Whistler, Nocturne:Blue & Gold- Old Battersea Bridge

 

Artists like Matisse, Picasso, Felix Valloton, etc., pushed this new interest in essentialism to new and intriguing extremes. Window at Tangier is by no means Matisse’s most striking or radical exploration of his ability to use economy of shape and tone- late in his career, he explored intensely minimal approaches to imagery with paper cut out pieces such as The Snail (1953):

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So while we can say there is something of an Orientalism that is implicit in the essentialist approach to creating Window at Tangier, we can also point to a more direct and more philosophical/spiritual dimension of Orientalism at work here. First, it is important to note that the painting itself is set in Tangier. While Tangier is located to the South of France, the Moorish culture of Morocco is tightly bound- at least in the European mind- to the religious and spiritual culture of the East: Islam.

There are two parts to why the copious use of ultramarine blue is associated with the East in European painting: one is that the word ultramarine itself (literally “over seas”) actually came from beyond Persia and is associated with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Persia, and the Western subcontinent of India. Artists and art aficionados continued to associate the color with the Orient and Islam due to both the sourcing of the pigment itself and the popularity of the color in illustrated manuscripts, tiling, and pottery of the Middle East.

Beyond the pigment and its unique history itself, the color blue was associated with wisdom- particularly among the French Symbolists and the Theosophists. Symbolism may not have been a dominant trend overtly in Matisse’s works, but he was trained in the atelier of pre-eminent Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I’ve written before about the link between the Symbolists and Orientalism (such as in this essay on James Ensor), but what’s important to note here is that the link in the Orientalist cosmology between and innate, intuitive, and primitive spiritual wisdom and the East is a major feature of the Orientalist mindset. So here we see the link again between the Orient, the color blue, and a kind of spiritual harmony/wisdom that represents a guilt and fear among Modernizing Europe and its cultural expressions.

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Henri Matisse, In the Atelier of Gustave Moreau

Matisse would go on to utilize these tropes more aggressively in many of his later works, using the color blue to color whole figures and canvases as an expression of internal knowledge and introspective exploration. What makes Window at Tangier so successful is the balanced and poetic use of Matisse’s broader affinities in an application to a single, recognizable subject- the painting is both exemplary of his deeper inclinations and a stand-alone evocation of a time and place. This particular balance is, in fact, the essence of lyricism.