Woman of Substance


Coastal shorelines, rocks spilled along beaches, drifting clouds, trees filled with wind, these and other natural phenomena were for Edvard Munch (1863–1944) not just elements of the earthly landscape, but ones with a life of their own. For him, they really were alive, a dynamic of his artwork that is explored and revealed in a novel exhibition, “Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth” at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (June 10–October 15, 2023, before the show travels to the Museum Barberini in Potsdam and Munchmuseet in Oslo).

“He saw nature and the landscape as living beings,” says Jay Clarke, Rothman Family Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and formerly Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark; she co-curated this show with Jill Lloyd, an independent curator, and Trine Otte Bak Nielsen, a curator at the Munchmuseet. Munch’s belief that natural phenomena contained their own kind of life force was not the fantasy of a mentally ill man or an alcoholic (though he was treated for both conditions), but rather a sensitive, introspective painter who closely chronicled, interacted with, and revered the nature he encountered in his native Norway, as well as in other European locales where he lived and worked. As if anticipating the late American poet Mary Oliver, who posited in many of her poems the idea that stones, clams, even water itself might have a soul, Munch, as Clarke writes, “animates seemingly inanimate matter.”

Munch himself wrote of how a “stone’s hard mass is alive” and how the luminescent glowing rocks he painted in certain works “lie like trolls,” adding that at night “they move.” The contemporaneous Norwegian writer Sigbjørn Obstfelder claimed that Munch “sees women’s hair and women’s bodies in waves.” Munch rendered plants with human facial characteristics, while he considered the very form that a shoreline assumes to represent “the perpetual shifting Lines of Life.” The very name of the exhibition, “Trembling Earth,” refers to a line by Munch referencing the breathing, organic ethos of nature itself and the seemingly lifeless but vital elements that populate it, whether mountains and islands or the sun and tidal currents.

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This story appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of MILIEU.