Ragnar Moltzau, Oslo (acquired before 1952 and until after 1958)
Oscar Johannesen, Norway (acquired in the late 1950s)
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (acquired in 1962)
Mr. & Mrs. Norton Simon, Los Angeles (acquired by 1968 and sold: Christie's, New York, October 21, 1980, lot 201)
The Wendell & Dorothy Cherry Collection (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 12, 1996, lot 26)
Private Collection, Europe (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby’s, New York, May 7, 2008, lot 25)
Acquired at the above sale
Pikene på broen (The Girls on the Bridge) numbers among Edvard Munch’s greatest masterpieces. Painted in 1902, the same year Munch’s Frieze of Life was exhibited at the Berlin Secession, the present work captures Munch’s use of bold coloration, sharp perspective and sinuous line. Of his twelve oils of this subject, ten are in public collections – the present work is one of only two canvases remaining in private hands. Munch’s importance to the history of 20th century art cannot be overstated. From Expressionism to Fauvism to Pop Art his far reaching influence is impossible to ignore. Instead of visual reality, it is his uncanny ability to capture the human experience and its emotions that makes him one of the most powerful artist in history.
Munch first visited Åsgårdstrand, a resort a few miles south of Oslo, in autumn of 1888. He took a holiday residence there in the summer of 1889, which he rented for some years until he purchased a house in 1897. In the following years, Munch traveled widely across Europe, making extended visits to Berlin, Paris and Hamburg, but often returned to Åsgårdstrand during the summer months. He painted his Frieze of Life there, characterized by his expressive winding line, distorted perspective and non-naturalistic colors that would ultimately inspire the Fauves in France and Expressionists in Germany and Austria. "The countryside around the little town of Åsgårdstrand near the west bank of the Oslo Fjord held an exceptional place in Munch's art. Munch was familiar with all of its features: the gently undulating coastline, the large crowns of the linden trees, and the white fences which materialized like fluorescent bands in the summer night. After several summer holidays there, he was able to immerse himself in the essence of the place in a way which made it a reflection of his own inner landscape, while simultaneously expressing the moods and feelings of an entire generation" (M. Lande in Edvard Munch, The Frieze of Life (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery, London, 1992, p. 54).
The year Munch first spent his summer in Åsgårdstrand, he wrote in his journal “No longer shall I paint interiors and people reading, and women knitting. I shall paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love – I shall paint a number of pictures of this kind. People will understand the sacredness of it, and will take off their hats as though they were in church.” George Heard Hamilton asserts that “In these three sentences he rejected the emotionally neutral subjects of Impressionism, and stated his determination to paint pictures expressive of states of mind and his vision of a group of pictures having a continuous, cumulative effect. The latter idea he developed as an extended Frieze of Life. As such it was never completed; the components were never definitely established, and although as many as twenty-two separate paintings were shown together at the Berlin Sezession [sic] in 1905, it remained a collection of disparate canvases differing in size, scale, and technique. Only the theme held the parts together, the theme of suffering through love towards death, suffering more mental than physical, realized by gesture more than by action, by facial expression more than by event. The individual episodes in sum comprise the fullest statement any artist has left of the fin-de-siècle mood of disillusionment with man’s material and social development” (George Heard Hamilton, Paintings and Sculptures in Europe 1880-1940, New Haven, 1993, pp. 122-24)
Alongside Vincent van Gogh, Munch was the key pioneer of Expressionism. Both artists used the genre of landscape as a vehicle to express inner states of being. In depicting nature in a highly individual, internalized manner, Munch draws on the tradition of stemningsmaleri, or “mood-painting,” characteristic of Nordic art towards the end of the nineteenth century, notably his contemporary Harald Sohlberg. Alongside several fellow avant-garde artists, Munch abandoned the plein-air naturalism which had dominated Norwegian landscape painting, in favor of an emotionally charged and resonant vision of nature. In the present masterpiece, he took as a starting point a scene he would have witnessed in Åsgårdstrand. The strong perspectival device of the jetty (although the work is titled with “bridge”) allows for the deep recess of space flowing sharply towards the town at right. Munch used the non-natural color and distorted perspective to express emotion.
Girls on the Bridge, one of Munch's most widely popular and acclaimed motifs, was painted during one of the most turbulent periods of his life. The rich symbolism of this picture relates to Frieze of Life, which takes the stages of a young woman's development from puberty to maturity as one of its themes. Girls on the Bridge continues Munch's exploration of these themes of sexual awakening and mortality. The image of a cluster of young women, huddled in a secretive mass between two points of land, resonates with explosive tension. Recalling his own emotional instability during the years he painted this image, Munch wrote to his friend Jens Thiis, probably in 1933: "...those years from 1902 until the Copenhagen clinic [in 1908] were the unhappiest, the most difficult and yet the most fateful and productive years of my life." Discussing Girls on a Bridge Antonia Hoerschelmann wrote: "Contemporary critics praised the work enthusiastically as perhaps the most mature and accomplished painting produced by the painter Edvard Munch. The painting was also received with great enthusiasm in Berlin, where Munch showed it to fellow artists in 1902. He reports that Max Liebermann considered it his best painting" (Edvard Munch – Theme and Variation (exhibition catalogue), Albertina, Vienna, 2003, p. 293).
A fervent traveler, whose existence around 1900 can be best described as nomadic, Munch absorbed the visual arts, literature and performance arts of the many cities and countries he went through. “The stimulating effect of Paris is reflected in the masterpieces he produced just after the turn of the century, such as the lyrical and harmonious Girls on the Bridge, a motif of puberty charged with the eroticism of a Nordic summer night. It is probably the most outstanding example of Munch’s ‘new artistic use of colour’ which appears to have influenced the French Fauvists…. In this context Christian Krohg’s comments in an article of 1909 are interesting: ‘In conclusion, if I were to give an impression of Matisse as a painter, I would say that he resembles Edvard Munch… I think Munch is the father of Matissism, though he may perhaps disown his child” (A. Eggum in Edvard Munch, The Frieze of Life (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery, London, 1992-93, p. 21)
As was often the case with his serialist tendencies, Munch went on to produce several versions of Girls on the Bridge, creating between 1901 and 1935 a total of twelve known oil paintings and a number of variations in etching, lithograph and woodcut. Five of these oils depict groups of women – identifiable based on their hair, worn pinned up under their hats – while six depict groups of adolescent girls, whose brightly colored dresses and loose hair denote their age. Of the works in oil, several are in the collections of museums around the world, including the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo; The Pushkin Museum, Moscow; Bergen Billedgalleri; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Munch Museum, Oslo. Sue Prideaux has described how critical this image was for the artist: "The Girls on the Bridge is a continuation of his redemption-landscapes, a wish for resurrection into a clean clear world inhabited by innocents, a hope that all loves need not be disastrous. The first time he showed it, the painting became enormously popular; he had already promised it to Olaf Schou in place of one that had been destroyed in a shipwreck, but he wrote to Tante Karen, 'shame it was sold, I could have sold it twenty times over.' It has remained one of his most popular images. In his mind, it occupied a very special place" (S. Prideaux, Edvard Munch, Behind the Scream, New Haven, 2005, p. 202).
Expressive use of color is fundamental to the present version of Girls on the Bridge, although there are some differences in composition with other versions from these first years of Munch's exploration of this motif. In the first version, originally called Summer Night, three young girls stand on the bridge at Åsgårdstrand and gaze into the water. The midnight sun creates a mysterious half-light which softens and dematerializes all the forms. Munch's draughtsmanship is organic and sinuous, paralleling contemporary developments in the decorative arts such as Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. In comparison, the present picture is characterized by a brilliant even light that eliminates mysterious shadows, sharpens and defines the forms and accentuates the contrast of color. A group of girls now clusters in the middle of the bridge, which recedes at a much sharper angle than in the Oslo picture, further into the picture plane, similar in perspective to The Scream.
These views of Åsgårdstrand do not look outwards towards the fjord that would be the focus of so much of Munch’s Norwegian production. Turning his back to the picturesque harbor, the artist depicted a view up the jetty, towards the houses and trees lining the side of the fjord, with a small upward-sloping road taking the viewer's eye deep into the composition. While from a structural point of view the bridge plays a similar role as in The Scream, the overall treatment of the scene provides a less dramatic, more poetic atmosphere. In the strength of its color and radical perspective, however, the present work ranks among the most confident and stunning paintings of Munch's career.
Ragna Stang has described Girls on the Bridge: "Munch makes use of a handrail to accentuate the perspective – our eyes instinctively follow it towards the landscape in the background, even though we are unable to make out precisely where the railing ends and the road, which leads past the large sleeping house into the small town beyond, actually begins. The composition of this first version shows clearly how Munch has applied the same technique of elementary simplification that we have already seen in landscapes of the period. He has achieved a perfect sense of equilibrium in the way that the sharp diagonal of the handrail is matched by the white horizontal line of the wall, while the dark, brooding mass of the linden tree is mirrored in the water below the swirling lines of the shore. Munch specialized in the portrayal of still summer nights, and in this painting he has succeeded, by the use of subtle shades of pink, deep green and blue, in recapturing that mood as never before, the whole effect being further enhanced by the small, watery gold shape of the moon. Against this mellow and restrained background, the green, red and white dresses of the girls ring out as a fanfare of color, and we are reminded of the question once posed by Christian Krohg: 'Has anyone ever heard such resonant color...?" (R. Stang, Edvard Munch, The Man and his Art, New York, 1979, p. 170).
The year the present work was painted was a seminal year in the artist’s career, both professionally and personally. After a long love affair with Tulla Larsen, Munch managed to separate himself once and for all from her in dramatic fashion. The affair ended in a self-inflicted gunshot wound, obliterating the knuckle of one of his fingers leading to a surgery he insisted on being awake during, which he would later use to create paintings of the medical procedure. The year 1902 however was also one of considerable career triumph - he first exhibited the Frieze of Life at the Berlin Secession, he bought and began to use a camera and he met Max Linde, who would publish, that same year, Edvard Munch und die Kunst der Zukunft (Edvard Munch and the Art of the Future).
During this period Munch moved increasingly away from portraits and representations of people in outdoor settings towards the motif of landscape. This shift of focus, however, did not signify a departure from his earlier obsession with tormented, angst-ridden individuals. On the contrary, it was precisely this emotional and mental instability that gave the artist the insight to produce such masterpieces as the present work, in which he reached a certain level of abstraction, expressing the joys and anxieties of the human condition through the pictorial elements of color and form. “Munch’s statement ‘I do not paint what I see but what I saw’ suggests that he understands his work as the product not of an empirical, observational process but of the cumulative emotion of the mind’s eye. Intentionally and consciously, between seeing something in the world and realizing it in paint, he passes it through a mental filter from which it later emerges transformed in the intensity of the remembered moment. Like van Gogh and Gauguin before him and the Expressionists after him, Munch often uses color not for naturalistic description but to convey authenticity of feeling. Meanwhile his loose, flowing brushstrokes shape figures whose contours pulsate with lines and movements in the scene surrounding them. Understanding the world as a place of agitation and stress, Munch makes that vision literal; the emotional states that concern Munch are often disruptive—anxiety, jealousy—but he also knows quieter moods, like melancholy, loneliness, or, more positively, the shared solitude of lovers as in The Kiss, where the couple seem to melt into each other in an erasure of separate identities” (K. McShine in Edvard Munch, The Modern Life of the Soul (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 15).
Munch's landscapes of this period had a strong influence on German Expressionist painters, who had the opportunity to see his works in several exhibitions in Germany between 1905 and 1908. The brilliant, wild palette that dominated Munch's canvases had a powerful impact on the Brücke artists who were eager to move away from their urban surroundings in Berlin and other cities, and to embrace the more 'primitive' life-style and wild nature of the northern German coast. It was the daring, expressive power of Munch's landscapes, pulsating with undulating lines and vivid, dramatic brush-strokes that had such a profound effect on some of the major figures of twentieth century art including Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein and Heckel.
Munch’s breadth of feeling in his works of art is hard to fully express. Perhaps no other artist has created such deeply gripping and unflinching images – images that are honest and in that honesty evoke visceral reactions. Kynaston McShine in the introduction to the Museum of Modern Art’s 2006 exhibition Edvard Munch, The Modern Life of the Soul described the artist: “Edvard Munch is the modern poet and philosopher in painting. At the same time, he is passionately emotional, perhaps more so than any other modern artist. The extremes of joy and pain all come to him, and human emotions are presented in his work with a naked rawness that still startles more than a century after his vision was formed. His iconic constructions depicting events and moods from his own life create indelible images that occupy our minds. Munch’s painting as in The Dance of Life, encompasses a litany of emotions that covers life from birth to death. The narrative of Munch’s life and work, rooted in the nineteenth century, somehow transforms, through his own will and force, his personal experiences into an extraordinary examination of what he terms ‘the modern life of the soul’ – birth, innocence, love, sexual passion, melancholy, anger, jealousy, despair, anxiety, illness, and death. His exploration of the range of modern experience in palpable psychological terms reflects an existential agitation” (ibid, p. 11).
The present work has formed an integral part of several famed American collections. It was first brought to the United States by Norton Simon in the 1960s whose collection is now displayed in the famed Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. Wendell & Dorothy Cherry acquired Girls on a Bridge in 1980 when Norton Simon decided to pursue a collection more focused on sculpture. The Cherrys shared a life-long passion for collecting the very finest European and American Paintings. Their extraordinary collection included seminal works by Degas, Klimt, Modigliani, Sargent, Soutine and Picasso amongst others. Wendell Cherry passed away in 1991 and Girls on the Bridge remained with his widow Dorothy until 1996, when it was sold by Sotheby's. On this occasion, as in 1980 and in 2008, the painting achieved a new world record for the artist. In 2012 Sotheby's sold The Scream for $119 million, then the highest auction price in history.
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