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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the pursuit Leon Spillaert Belgian symbolist painter of night and nocturnal painting

“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert

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“The Pursuit,” Leon Spilliaert (1910)

 

The Belgian painter Leon Spilliaert was an artist preoccupied by nocturnal themes- images of disorientation, loneliness, exuberance, etc, populate his oeuvre. The Pursuit is a unique painting among his work for a number of reasons. I want to draw attention to how this piece is both exemplary of Spilliaert’s style and exceptional for its darker motif and suggestive title.

The first thing about this image worth noting is that it indeed fits well within Spilliaert’s area of visual interest: The span of the road leading up to the bridge, the strange and elongated perspective, the use of a very narrow range of color yet a broad range of value (i.e. gradient of tone from light to dark), the peculiar and enchanting quality of evening/night-time light, and the effect of light on moving water are all classic motifs among his body of work. The eery effect of the perspective of the image, for example, fits in with both his fascination with exaggerated expanses of bare space and his taste for creating disorientation or discomfort. The two images below- Moon and Light and Dyke and Beach– illustrate his penchant for these themes, yet The Pursuit seems to bring them together in the same space.

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“Moon and Light,” Leon Spilliaert (1909)

 

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“Dyke and Beach,” Leon Spilliaert (1907)

What sets The Pursuit apart from much of his work is that while Spilliaert was typically content with a suggestion of uneasiness, fear, loneliness, and even menace in his works, both his use of the title “pursuit” and his inclusion of two figures chasing each other is more overtly assertive about the tension in the image. For example, Moon and Light might be seen as an expression of vertigo. At the same time, it might merely be a feeling of awe at a unique alignment of perspectival elements and colors.

In keeping with Spilliaert’s character as an artist, even with the suggestion of a chase through the night in a haunting and disconcerting space, the viewer is not certain what kind of pursuit is happening: it could be friends leaving the bar, drunkenly joking with each other; it could be unsupervised children playing in the twilight hour, bored as they wait for their supper; or it could be as sinister as a robber and his victim. As I’ve written before of Spilliaert in my article on his painting Nightthe playfulness with his audience about whether his work is brooding or buoyant elevates his work out of what might otherwise be moody and macabre into a unique space that is uncertain and requires inference and repeated engagement by the viewer to this day.

Puvis de Chavannes Young Girls By the Seaside

Pierre Puvis De Chavannes: “Young Girls By The Seaside”

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Young women grooming themselves at the water’s edge is a familiar trope in European painting. The historical roots of the subject reach at least as far as Ovid’s Metamorphosis and his account of the Goddess Diana glimpsed bathing with her nymphs by Actaeon. Picked up and enriched by artists from Titian to Matisse, this theme is often explored as “bathers.” Indeed, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes painted bathers by the river himself. Young Girls By the Seaside, however, stands out as a unique and intriguing adaptation.

Young Girls is composed of three women: one faces the viewer but seems to gaze languidly beyond, the central figure faces the Sea, and a third lies on her side staring somewhere the viewer cannot see as most of her face is obscured. The sun sets over the Sea. Dry looking grasses and sparse shrubs and flowers are scattered on the ground and hillside.

A pyramidal composition is quite pronounced in this piece by the paucity of mise en scene. There simply is not much else in the picture besides the women, and their placement in a triangular relationship is an interesting device. Some of the most famous works of European art have used the pyramidal construct to convey a sense of harmony, fortitude, confidence, triumphal mood, etc., including the Mona Lisa, Raphael’s Madonna and Child variations, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. A personal favorite example is Piero Della Francesca’s Resurrection (see below); the use of the pyramid as an evocation of power and triumph matches the subject so perfectly, it is a shining example of a masterful fusion of form and subject.

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What makes de Chavannes’ use of this compositional device remarkable in Young Girls is that the triangle itself is linked metaphysically to symbols of power, given its geometrically formidable nature. Yet there is something markedly vulnerable about the Young Girls pictured: the young woman on  the left’s expression appears anything but powerful, evoking more of a sense of wistful introspection or perhaps even boredom. There’s a stark juxtaposition here between the strength invoked by the triangle of women and the simultaneous fragility of youth and beauty on display. The suppleness of the central figure’s muscles in her arms, the sheen of her fair hair, the smoothness of her complexion, and the gentleness of her curves all are recognizable features of transitory youth. This sensation is amplified by the uncertainty in the woman on the left’s expression. There is nothing prideful or gloating about her character, despite her obvious beauty. The viewer is left wondering if the other two women carry the same distant expressions- is the woman in the center preening boastfully as she strokes her long hair, or is she conscientious of its delicacy?

The placement of the Young Girls by the seaside may tell us something about the less-than-celebratory expressions of these women. The immense, methodical, tireless, and seemingly endless expanse and motion of the sea is a daunting and confrontational symbol. Facing the enormity of the sea places mortal youthfulness is an uncertain and diminished roll- a mortal life seems much smaller in stature cast against enormity of the Ocean. The sea is one of the closest things to timelessness and eternity humanity can witness, and the endless march of the tide is a stark reminder that time is constantly passing. This ontological confrontation between delicate mortal youth and the expansive forces of space, time, and inhuman natural power lends this work of Puvis de Chavannes a profound and sympathetic quality. At any and every stage of life, we are all the Young Girls in this picture. 

In conclusion, Young Girls By the Seaside stands out from much of Puvis de Chavannes’ oeuvre. His fame has diminished over the decades partly because he often depicted a certain rigidity of idealism and naïvety that the current of successive art and criticism has moved far away from. That rigidity is often reflected in the somewhat stiff and contrived poses of his characters who typically appear frozen in time, more like statues than living beings. Indeed, he often depicted the Olympian gods, demigods, angels, and mythological beings that are themselves immortal and outside of time. Young Girls, in strong contrast to that tendency, is a touching, sensitive depiction of frail mortality put in its broader context of eternity. Ironically, it is the firm placement of these women in their spot in time and space that makes this work of de Chavannes more timeless than many of his immortal gods.