Bergen masterpieces at the Courtauld Gallery

LIFTING the lid off a familiar music box, but finding the figure, movement and music radically changed, is the feeling of seeing “Masterpieces of Bergen”. Gone is the image of Munch as a master of melancholy. Instead, a range of works borrow from Post-Impressionism and Pointillism, before moving on to characteristic Stylized Expressionism.

Lent from the collection that mill owner Rasmus Meyer bequeathed to Bergen, the exhibition traces both Munch’s development and the relationship between painter and collector. Shown alongside Courtauld’s rehung collection, it’s an opportunity to see Munch’s work evolve in tandem with Parisian artists, including Degas, Gauguin, Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose styles he referenced.

The 18-canvas exhibition begins in the 1880s with 20-year-old Munch Morning (1884), which shows a young woman getting dressed, one bare foot suspended above the floor, sitting on an unmade bed. Contemporary critics said the subject was unsuitable for art, but a leading Norwegian artist acknowledged the painter’s virtuosity with form and color. Munch challenged himself to make surfaces white, from the woman’s partially buttoned top to the wrinkled bed linen and sun-drenched tablecloth.

Sunlight also dominates in eating in the sun (1888), depicting the artist’s younger sister on the coast at Asgardstrand, rapid brushstrokes capturing a outside rendering style of light and surfaces. Inger is seen slightly from below, squinting against the sun in her wide-brimmed ocher hat, a color also used to shade her jawline and pick the brooch on her white collar.

KODE Art Museum Bergen, Rasmus Meyer CollectionEdvard Munch (1863-1944), Deathbed, 1895, oil and tempura on unprimed canvas

A year later Munch returned to Asgardstrand with his sister and painted the artwork announcing his distinctive style, “where Munch becomes Munch”. Summer night. Inger on the beach (1889) depicts Inger, with a pensive expression, sitting on the rocks at sunset. The white of her dress contrasts sharply with the dark-hued rocks and the endlessly lapping blue-gray sea. Placing a figure in an environment that expresses the individual’s mood anticipates the artist’s distinctive style, evident in works from the 1890s.

As an adult, Munch did not practice the strict Lutheranism of his childhood, but his art is steeped in Christian symbolism. In 1909 he wrote: “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the recesses of the human body and dissected corpses, I try to dissect souls. On the deathbed (1895) recounts the death of his sister Sophie when the artist was 14 years old. He had already lost his mother.

Drawing inspiration from 19th-century devotional images of life-threatening illnesses, the painting reveals the psychological effect of grief in the outsized praying hands of Munch’s father and the ghostly, hollow-eyed faces of women. The sheet covering the barely sketched body suggests a shroud.

Three Step Woman (1894) is considered one of the key works in Munch’s Frieze of Life, a series about love, anxiety, and death. To the right of the plane, an angelic figure, holding flowers, stands on the shore, gazing out to sea. Beside her, a nude redhead, with heavily made-up face and feet apart, looks directly at the viewer. Behind his elbow, a slim woman in black fades into the background. The furnace red of the central character’s hair is highlighted in the fleshy heart-shaped flower held by an anxious man on the right.

redhead fatal women were a key motif of the Symbolist movement, and the contrast between her and the young woman dressed in white whom Munch described as a “saint” highlights the tension between the liberated visions of women promoted in his bohemian circles and the traditional juxtaposition of pure and socialites.

The red-haired temptress reappears in Man and woman (1898), which can be interpreted as Adam and Eve after the Fall, with its male and female nudes on a green background, the man holding his head in despair. In Nude in profile to the right (1898), the woman appears embarrassed, her arms crossed as a sign of protection, as if she had just eaten the forbidden fruit. A similar work on paper, too delicate to be transported for this exhibition, is simply titled The fisherman.

‘Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen’ is at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 4 September.