The Sun, 1912
The point Munch finally reached in this direction is beyond the limits of the first generation of Impressionists and includes innovations of Seurat's Neo-Impressionism. The painting in which this extreme is most evident is the Spring Day on the Karl Johan of 1891. The handling and the relations of colors, particularly in the foreground figures, the vertical accents, the horizontal shadows and the long perspective lines seem echoes of Seurat's paintings.
It is clear, however, that Munch was not interested in the most subtle and radical aspect of Seurat's art, the structural function of lines, shapes and colors in creating two-dimensional and three-dimensional effects. The Seuratlike features in Munch by no means dominate or control the canvas by their inter-relationships; rather, these borrowings supplied only a few of the elements of which the painting consists. The 'pointillist' manner of painting in uniform touches is not followed. The touch of the brush varies with the texture of objects, the color is broken or not, depending on the light, and the definiteness of contour likewise changes; basically, Munch is faithful to the older Impressionism. His pleasing and successful canvas comes very close to the best French work, but to that of an Impressionist painter influenced by Seurat, such as Pissarro.
Yet ultimately the importance of Seurat was great for Munch. After 1892 the impressionist manner was dropped, but even in the nineties his color shows the effect of Seurat's theories about complementaries. After 1900, when new tendencies appear in his painting, he returned to the problems of light and color and he came back to the application of the French painter's theories, but in a very different manner.
Impressionism for Munch at the beginning of the nineties was a temporary absorption in a kind of painting that had no relationship to the program he had announced for himself. But the brief movement in which a group of young Frenchmen participated under the leadership of Gauguin during the years Munch was in France did supply him with the means which he could apply to the problem of making pictures of the feeling, loving and suffering of living beings.
Gauguin opposed Impressionism and Realism in order to create painting which could convey more than mere sensations. His method, which he called at various times symbolic or synthetic, involved reduction of modeling, elimination of gradations or division of tones, emphasis on contours and on linear relationships of a rhythmical character. He arrived at his relatively abstract forms subjectively and intuitively rather than by the precise calculation of Seurat. The goal and the method both have obvious affinities with Munch's character as an artist. His use of Gauguin's style is far different from his excursion in Impressionism. Instead of faithfully learning the principles of a new style like a student, Munch seized on the features of Gauguin which could be of immediate use to him.
There was a complete assimilation to his own ends of the other's means. None of his works resemble Gauguin's or those of his younger followers as his impressionist paintings do their French models. There is no ground, however, for doubting the importance of Gauguin for Munch. The fact is that in 1891 unmistakable traces of Gauguin's style appear in paintings which mark a new departure for Munch. This is the very time when Gauguin had the strongest effect on his own countrymen. Furthermore, Munch continued to be interested during the nineties in the later ramifications of certain aspects of Gauguin's manner when, much transformed, they became a part of what is called 'Art Nouveau' or the 'Jugendstil.'
The paintings of 1891 which show this relationship to Gauguin are of subjects that became part of the Frieze of Life: Man and Woman on the Shore, formerly in Berlin, and the canvas called Evening, which has the additional title of The Yellow Boat. The latter was the canvas in which a new direction in Munch's style was first apparent. When Munch's paintings were exhibited in Oslo in the autumn of 1891 Christian Krohg published a very perceptive note on Evening. He saw that it was an innovation for Munch, and for Norwegian art.
When one has looked at it for a while and turns to the others, even to his [ Munch's] own works, there is a gaping gulf between them,' and he recognized that the manipulation of lines and colors was "related to symbolism, the latest tendency in French art. The latest slogan is now resonant harmony in color. Has anyone heard such resonant colors as in this picture?' This musical, unrealistic quality struck Krohg the most and he also praised the yellow accent of the boat in the background which repeated the line of the horizon. He concluded, 'Thus we have the phenomenon that Munch, who here at home has been considered the most incorrigible of all the realists, the most impudent and reckless of all "ugly painters," is the first and only one to turn to idealism.'
The painting praised by Krohg can no longer be identified. There are three versions that correspond to the composition as he describes it, the shore line curving into the distance with a seated figure in the foreground, his head on his hand, looking over the calm water. All are dated 1895 or later, primarily because of their tonality and greater abstractness. A fourth version of the motive that seems earliest in style has the figure in the foreground in a different position, facing the spectator and cut off by the frame. It was purchased by the owner, Christian Mustad, directly from Munch. The fact that this composition was not repeated in later versions in painting or woodcut, as the other composition was, may argue that this is actually Munch's first treatment of the theme. In any case, the Mustad painting has the characteristics described by Krohg, the areas of unbroken color, the curving shore line and the yellow boat which repeats the final line of the shore.
These are the traits of Gauguin's style; the meandering curves of the shore line in the foreground seem to be a specific echo. Unlike Gauguin is the deep recession of the lines into the distance. His Brittany paintings, which must have been Munch's ultimate source, have elimination of depth as an accompaniment of reduced modeling. It is by the movement back into space, however, that Munch makes the contrast of the moody figure in the foreground and the tranquillity of the shore, sea and sky of the Norwegian summer night.
Edvard Munch, Impressionism, Edvard Munch Biography, Munch Paintings, Munch Drawings, The Scream, Ash 1894, Bathing Man, Mermaid on the Shore, The Murderer, Separation, The Dance of Life, Madeban Auf Dem Pier, Jealousy, Young Girl on a Jetty, The Girls on the Pier, Four Girls on a Bridge, The Kiss, Girl with Red Hair, Lady From the Sea, Madonna 1895, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, Summer Night at the Beach, Girl on a Bridge, Summer Night at Asgarstrand, Vampire, White and Red, Madonna 1894, Bathing Man, The Sun, Moonlight