Bielefeld, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Edvard Munch, 1912 in Deutschland, 2002-03, n.n., illustrated in color in the catalogue
Oslo, Nasjonalmuseet, Munch 150, 2013
Sommernatt (Summer Night), depicting the abbreviated night skies of summer in Åsgårdstrand, encapsulates Edvard Munch's Expressionist opus while foreshadowing his growing interest in the landscape of his native Norway, which would dominate his oeuvre in the years that followed. Painted in 1902, the same year Munch’s Frieze of Life was exhibited at the Berlin Secession, the present work captures his use of bold coloration, sharp perspective and sinuous line. Munch’s importance to the history of twentieth 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.
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 and Eugène Jansson. 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 Sommernatt (Summer Night), he took as a starting point the night scene from just outside his house in Åsgårdstrand. Creating a strong perspectival device of the path and greenery leading toward his garden bench, allowing for the deep recess of space to flow sharply towards the hills beyond the red-roofed dwelling and the stars which pinprick the night sky, Munch used non-natural color and distorted perspective to express emotion.
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 for, which he would later use to create paintings of the medical procedure. The year 1902 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. “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), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 15).
Sommernatt (Summer Night), was not the artist's first depiction of the Åsgårdstrand landscape by night. In 1895-7 he painted Starry Night, now in the collection of the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal. Two scenes set outside of Paris in 1890 were shown in the evening hours - Night in Saint-Cloud and The Seine at Saint-Cloud. In the latter Munch's treatment of stars in the night sky develops towards that seen in the present work. Within two years, his output of night time scenes became more pronounced, often including human figures, though Sommernatt (Summer Night) is one of only three works painted from this vantage point, and the only nighttime scene. The other two works, a small, loose oil on cardboard Munch's House in Åsgårdstrand of 1899, in the collection of the Munch Museet, Oslo and a much later work from 1932, The Fight showing two men tumbling down the hillside, looking up towards the house, also in the Munch Museet, are both suffused with bright sunlight and quite dissimilar from the present work. It was rare for Munch to not incorporate a vantage point into his work repeatedly thus making Sommernatt (Summer Night) quite rare in its unique viewpoint in Munch's production.
Munch's mystical and mysterious scenes of night are dominated by either the moon, whose bright beam illuminates the canvases and ripples in the water normally present in these scenes, or by the expressively painted deep blue sky, punctuated by distant stars and planets. In his use of broad brush strokes and a dazzling array of constellations, Munch's nighttime output echoes that of Vincent Van Gogh's in the late 1880s. Munch reflected on Van Gogh's importance, stating “During his short life, Van Gogh did not allow his flame to go out. Fire and embers were his brushes during the few years of his life, whilst he burned out for his art. I have thought, and wished, that in the long term, with more money at my disposal, like him, I would not let my flame go out, and with a burning brush paint until the end” (quoted in Munch: Van Gogh (exhibition catalogue), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & Munch Museum, Oslo, 2015-16, p. 6).
Writing about these nighttime scenes in both Van Gogh and Munch's work, Reinhold Heller states: “Van Gogh, too, shared a fascination with the nocturnal, star-filled sky with Munch, and both artists projected into these scenes mingled feelings of melancholy and foreboding, but also hope and longing as slivers of light, whether from the moon or from stars, broke into the mysteriously enveloping atmosphere of blue tones. To Van Gogh, the starry night sky could make him yearn for the comforts of religion, as he wrote to his brother, and it was key to his painting effort that he experienced the night sky on the spot while in the process of painting it, illuminating his canvas by the light of a gas lamp as he employed a wide range of colors to match what he saw. The settings of Munch’s starry nights and moonlit scenes are similarly specific on location…. Despite such topographical specificity, however, Munch employed his shifting tones and veils of blue-tinged color, his ambiguously darkened and flattened shapes, and his suggestions of mistily indeterminable space and distance to embody moods and memories more than precise locations, evoking dreamy states of melancholy, meditation, isolation and longing, often mingled with thoughts of death” (ibid., pp. 77-78). Sommernatt (Summer Night) sublimely evokes this mysterious state, conveying through Munch's familiar surroundings all of the uncertainties and beauty of the human condition.
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