At the fore of the Munch: Van Gogh exhibition is a series of striking parallels. The format of comparison is employed throughout: a landscape by Van Gogh leads into a landscape by Munch, striking red in a print by Munch stands next to a fiery Van Gogh. Framing these stylistic comparisons are a few facts that seem almost synchronistic in nature. The two artists began their careers in the 1880’s, trained in Naturalism, grew to love Symbolism, and moved to Paris to escape their artistically traditional (and often repressive) homelands.
Munch and Van Gogh shared a deep love of color, emphatically celebrated in their work. For them, color was not always representative of happiness and freedom, but rather, a means of communicating the ever-present collision of life and death, strength and weakness that they saw in the world. We see in both artists a battle with the self: themes of despair, loneliness, fear, and sickness are common. While there is sometimes a supernatural, dreamlike quality to the work of both artists, their visions with regards to this were opposed. The exhibition guide notes “Gauguin looked to dreams, stories and memories for inspiration, while Van Gogh took reality and the natural world as his starting point.” This can be seen throughout the show in works by Munch such as “Madonna”, “Cupid and Psyche”, and “Metabolism” where he draws reference to mythology and religion.
There is a heavy presence of the psychological seen throughout, with pictures such as Munch’s “The Scream” that has become a well-known emblem for anxiety and fear. Landscapes held particular emotional significance for both artists, and Van Gogh’s “Undergrowth with Two Figures” calls to mind alienation in a similar fashion through the depiction of two ghostlike forms amidst a deep, lush forest. Representational methods vary greatly at times, most clearly seen in the comparison of two beach paintings. Van Gogh depicts the sand and frothy waves in exquisite detail, while Munch takes a more symbolic approach, using thick lines of blues against a portrait sized canvas. Both artists employ representational strategies of expression and symbol with certain works, while using a mimetic approach in others.
Other artists such as Gaugin and Josef Israëls vary the exhibition, with works used to display Munch and Van Gogh’s influences, as well as convey the radical evolution of their artistic approaches. Both artists were greatly influential with regards to the Expressionist movement, playing with composition, line, and color in a manner that departed from earlier Impressionist ideals. The unique approach of both artists is displayed in a way that effectively celebrates their differing approaches. Van Gogh is understood more clearly seen alongside his influences and contemporaries, and Munch’s individuality is similarly emboldened.
Both their lives culminated in the development of a series of works, Van Gogh’s Décoration and Munch’s The Frieze of Life. Both influenced by classical music, Van Gogh compared his work in series to a symphony. On the third floor of the exhibition, two screens on opposing walls depict these series in altering orders while Wagner’s music fills the room. This final gallery conveys an important message of the exhibit: to honor and commemorate the constant striving efforts of both artists. While their work certainly has substantial difference, there is a commonality that impacts and effects viewers at all ages and from all walks of life. The artists were concerned with finding their place in the world, learning and overcoming their obstacles, and expressing this journey on the canvas