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SFMOMA’s New Edvard Munch Exhibition Is an Emo Tour de Force

You won’t see The Scream, but Between the Clock and the Bed is the next best thing.

SLIDESHOW

Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903.

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Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair, 1892.

Photo: Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm

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Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43.

Photo: Courtesy of the Munch Museum, Oslo

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You wouldn’t go to the Louvre and not see the Mona Lisa. You wouldn’t go to the Sistine Chapel and not look up at the ceiling. And when the defining retrospective tour of Edvard Munch comes to town, you’d definitely want to see The Scream, right?

There’s no getting around the fact that the latest high-profile special exhibition at SFMOMA, Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, opening June 24 and on view through October 9, features one giant, glaring, screaming omission. (The official explanation is: Two versions of the famed painting exist, one at the National Museum of Norway and another at the Munch Museum in Oslo. Both, however, are are too delicate to travel outside the country.)

That said, it doesn’t take a particularly vivid imagination to see The Scream among the 44 works spanning some 60 years on display here. 

Even casual observers will recognize elements of Munch’s most famous work at once and create a sort of composite Scream of their own. Consider the ghoulish faces in Jealousy (1907) and the bug eyes of an onlooker in The Dance of Life (1925). Elsewhere, the incandescent, fiery blaze engulfing the subject in Self-Portrait in Hell (1903) recalls the turmoil above in The Scream, while the hallucinatory dreamscape of Red Virginia Creeper (1898–1900) inhabits the same sort of mental reverie as its more celebrated cousin. Most clearly, though, one can see The Scream in two works, presented side by side, that directly presage and follow up Munch’s most famous work: Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair (1892) and Despair (1894).

Compositionally, they’re nearly identical to The Scream: They each feature a pained male figure bent over on a long pier under a crazed sky as a pair of walkers move together farther down the pier. Emotionally, they’re also clearly related, loaded down with existential despair—perhaps less viscerally than in The Scream, but full of angst regardless.

But to focus solely on the missing painting would do a disservice to the rest of this fine collection, few pieces of which have ever been exhibited in the United States before. Munch’s last show in San Francisco came in 1951 at the de Young, and as such, many Americans, particularly here, have only a casual familiarity with the Norwegian master. Gary Garrels, the museum's senior curator of painting and sculpture, explains that many people wrongly associate Munch (1863–1944) solely with his late-19th-century post-impressionist contemporaries—Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin—while Munch in fact painted all the way until World War II, and three-quarters of his works are dated after the turn of the century. 

In Between the Clock and the Bed, Munch’s work is divided into eight themes that cut across the decades but make up the bulk of his subject matter—all of it dripping with symbolism. Among them are his frequent self-portraits—the exhibition includes 15 of them, portraying him as a 20-something bohemian through old age—and scenes centered around the sick bed, hallucinations, and nocturnes. Throughout, the works mine our deepest emotional veins—death, sex, power, religion. It’s fear and loathing in Oslo, and it’s emo as hell.

“No question,” Garrels says of Munch’s subject matter. “They’re intense.” 

Fittingly, the exhibition uses one of Munch’s final major works, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43), as a launching point for the retrospective. In it, the artist stands inside his bedroom, surrounded by his own artworks. To one side of him is a grandfather clock with no hands and no numbers; to the other, an unfinished-looking bed conspicuously lacking in paint. Beginnings, ends, and time are all crashing down on one another. It’s here, bedside, that so much of life takes place: It’s where life is created, where it begins, and where it ultimately ends. 

Heavy stuff, right?

 

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