Winter, so to speak

In August, Jacquie suggested that we meet in Washington, D.C., to see the exhibition of Edvard Munch prints at the National Gallery of Art. I’ve been a sucker for Munch since at least 1968, when I visited the Munch Museum in Oslo for the first time. In 2001 I fearlessly led my family on a forced march up the hill from Karl Johans gate for a second visit (the museum’s future location nearer Oslofjord will require less endurance on future visits). And my favorite coffee mug naturally bears the image of “The Scream”. How could I possibly resist.

Winter (After Arcimboldo) by Philip Haas

Winter (After Arcimboldo) by Philip Haas

And so, in late September, six of us — Lisa, Jacquie, Frank, Gabe, Sam, and I — gathered at Gabe and Sam’s house near the National Zoo, cruised by Metro to the city center, and walked on to the Gallery. As we entered the exhibition hall I noticed through a large window an odd statue, vaguely reminiscent of pictures I had seen long ago. Inside we found the statue serving as greeter at the top of the staircase leading to the special exhibitions. Standing by the statue we could see the entrance to the exhibit we had come to see — Edvard Munch: Master Prints; and across the hall we could see the entrance to another exhibit — Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy. We knew we would have to see that as well.

Munch has long fascinated me. It’s not just the themes of his pictures (ignore what some say about my fatalism, sometimes gloomy attitudes, or fascination with Norwegian heritage), or the colors, or the forms. It’s much more his tenacity in working and re-working his ideas as though searching each image, each theme, for something more. I have always had the feeling that he was never satisfied, never believed that paint or ink had captured the vision that drove it; that he was constantly trying new forms and new colors to reveal the image in his mind. Of course multiple prints allow one to sell the same image again and again, so maybe he was really only in it for the money. But I prefer to think otherwise. The exhibit displayed a small number of Munch’s prints, but several variations of each, enough to glimpse to some degree a changing vision. It was a small exhibit, and “used up” within a fairly short time.

The Librarian, by Arcimboldo

The Librarian (Wolfgang Lazius), ca. 1562, by Arcimboldo

So then we moved on from Munch, across the hall and into a different world. While Munch’s prints can be seen as “expressionist”, Arcimboldo’s paintings might have been called “Dadaist” if they had been painted in the 20th Century instead of the 16th. Long ago, in an issue of Horizon I think, I had read an article about Arcimboldo and his odd portraits that use the shapes of fruits, vegetables, animals, and other items to build a face; but I had forgotten about him completely until I saw Haas’s statue. The images are striking, filled with fun, and executed with obvious technical skill — strict realism in each part, but the parts make up a very unreal whole — and I was glad to have been reminded of this remarkable artist. This is one of my favorite Arcimboldo paintings, perhaps for reasons obvious to some.


One thought on “Winter, so to speak

  1. Pingback: National Gallery Ledge Piece « Koppantó

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