When Munch went back to woodcut after his return to Norway--he had made none during the years 1906 to 1910--most of the work during the first years was dependent on the style of his paintings. The self-portrait of 1911 is conceived as three-dimensional form revealed by light. The strong opposition possible in woodcut, rather than the nature of the material, is exploited. The lights bring out the features powerfully and contrast with the dark shadows of the eye-sockets to create the character in the portrait. The light vertical lines at the left, while they do follow the grain of the wood, count as lights that let the outline of the head appear and give the impression of the bulk of the head.
Within the next few years Munch took up old woodcut problems when he returned to the subjects of the early prints and to the old blocks to make new states in more complex color. A print such as the Sun Bather of 1915 is a transposition into colored woodcut of the effects of nudes in sunlight seen in the paintings of bathers of the middle 'teens, but the technique of woodcut produces results far removed from representation. The abstractly expressive character of the technique reaches its peak in one of the early prints of the series from Ibsen's 'The Pretenders,' The Last Hour.
The staccato whites and blacks which render the courtyard and the figures standing in the background create an environment that seems to quiver around the prominent figure of King Skule, a contrast that--though very different in means-recalls the relation of figures and background in the painting Anxiety of many years before. Munch's representation does not correspond exactly to any precise moment of the action of the play, but it conveys the dramatic tenseness of the scene near the close when Skule, pursued by his enemies and having taken refuge in a nunnery, waits for the sanctuary to be violated and for his own death.
Munch's versatility in woodcut is brought out in a print of the same series which is dated late in the twenties. The Trial by Fire is the opening scene of the play. By undergoing the ordeal Inga establishes the legitimacy of Haakon, Skule's rival. In this print the accent is on the figure of Inga, who shows her unblemished hands to the witnesses. The delicacy of modeling and drawing expresses the character of the woman who has submitted to the barbarous test for the sake of her son.
Very closely related to the figure of Inga are three woodcuts of one of Munch's favorite models done late in his life. They are interesting because they continue the thought in the representation of the character from Ibsen: woman is portrayed as possessing the inner strength and the devotion required for self-sacrifice. The version known as Birgitte III is the most sensitive expression of these qualities. This mature conception is expressed by a subtle use of the woodcut in which the styles of his earlier manners are integrated. The grain of the wood prints vertical white lines through the darks. The light areas of the face and neck are made by scratching away the surface of the block in vertical strokes. Light pervades the print and flows over the features which are suffused with feeling, yet the consciousness of the grain of the wood and the cutting of the block consistent with it are never lost. This integration of expressive representation with the abstract qualities inherent in making the print from wood is the final stage of what Munch began in the woodcuts of the end of the nineties.
The main direction of Munch's easel painting was toward an analogous integration of means. The change in his outlook at the beginning of the century had turned him from the methods of the nineties. After his return to Norway there were further modifications of tht arbitrary procedures that had been retained. Munch now demanded that his painting accord with a more consistent way of seeing nature. Distortions such as multiple angles of vision which had been employed so effectively could no longer be used, nor could obviously deliberate geometrical arrangements such as the contrast of horizontals and verticals of the Bathing Men. Yet within the limits of this more natural visual logic Munch searched for expression as intently as ever. One of the solutions he found in the period from 1910 to 1920 involved further development of the figure or group of figures moving forward in space.
This pictorial idea begins at the end of the eighties when Munch was interested in Impressionism, and he had employed it many times since. At Warnemünde it had been given a new form in the central canvas of the Bathing Men which had been repeated in the Snow Shovelers. The Galloping Horse of 1912 is based on a new conception of the idea. The setting recedes in a sharp perspective, with rapid diminution in scale of the objects in it, and the horse, vigorously foreshortened, head thrust forward, seems to bound forward out of the receding space of the picture. This exuberant expression of sheer animal motion and vitality is reinforced by the contrast of the warm browns and oranges of his coat against the whites of the snow. The painting is the climax of the Kragerø works which display a joy in the physical sensation of nature hitherto rare in Munch.
Three years later in Workmen Coming Home a similar method is used. The perspective now is long and deep and out of it the workmen march. They are coming toward the spectator and also seem to be passing by him through the surface of the painting, an effect produced by the position from which the scene is viewed; the figure at the right which is cut off by the frame is seen from the side and from above.
The advancing movement is accentuated by the thrust-forward head and shoulders of this figure, an effect even more pronounced in the second workman, whose face is a focal point in the painting. The upper parts of the figures in the foreground have a bulk which gives the movement weight and adds to its power. A lithograph repeats this composition but with the addition of a top-hatted figure at the left who turns to stare as the workmen go past, showing that Munch had a specific idea about the working man when he conceived the painting.
This painting, and the Galloping Horse, bring to mind effects produced by the motion picture. The movement seems to continue beyond the surface of the canvas and the foreshortening is exaggerated; so that the horse's legs, and the legs of the second workman, appear to recede beneath the forwardmoving body. A film made by photographing a moving object with a camera mounted on a vehicle in front of it and moving at the same speed produces the sense of a setting flying back while the object moves forward and suggests the distortions in foreshortening of the Galloping Horse. The other painting may be compared to motion pictures of street scenes where people go past a stationary camera.
It would be entirely in character for Munch, who was always quick to seize a device or an idea that suited his needs, to have been impressed by the spatial images of the new pictorial medium of that day. There are other paintings of the period that seem to bear out this hypothesis. A replica of the workmen painting of 1919 in the Copenhagen Museum, however, lacks the distortions of the earlier picture. Whether or not Munch was influenced by the motion picture, his interest was now turning away from the problem of strong movement in space.
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