Mermaid on the Shore, 1898
The need to express specific emotions led Munch to seek and in a number of instances to repeat representational motives capable of conveying a definite feeling or mood. There is a limited repertoire of these repeated motives which is analogous to his vocabulary of forms. The shore, sea and sky seen in so many paintings and prints--often recognizable as Aasgaardstrand, a village on the Oslo Fjord where Munch had spent summers since the late eighties--can play a specific emotional role. The space of the sea itself is communed with by Munch's absorbed and inaccessible maidens while before it his men are bowed. The character of the Norwegian summer gives the shore landscape a special meaning--as is felt in the flaming sunset of The Cry, the lummous sky and the diffused light of the summer night of Attraction, or the rising moon of Summer Night and The Dance of Life.
In representing the human figure Munch arrived at a few gestures and postures which he likewise repeated to impart a specific feeling. An obvious one is the bowed man for despondency. Johan Langaard has pointed to the motive of the woman with her arms held behind her as a formula for feminine provocativeness as she both holds herself back and offers herself. It is the gesture of the women who wait in the moonlight, the Eve of Jealousy makes it as completely as she can, and it occurs in several portraits. A variation is Madonna where one arm is held behind her body while the other is raised to her head as if she offered and received simultaneously. The portrait of Madame Przybyszewski with her expression of irony and invitation, so far from the yearning of Summer Night and the other versions of the motive, shows that while Munch may have employed a formula it did not become a stereotype.
The four self-portraits Munch made at the end of this Berlin period are significant autobiographical documents. They illustrate, in the different ways in which the subject is conceived and rendered, the particular condition of Munch's art at this time. In Hell is freely brushed with a strong contrast of warm and cool colors and of light and shade, with the nude body modeled in yellows and oranges with green accents. With a Cigarette is almost monochromatic with its subdued blues and purples except for the pale warm tones of the face and hand; the latter are painted solidly in fine strokes to build up modeling while the dark tones are brushed in thinly and sketchily. Under the Mask is painted flatly with a minimum of modeling. The image of himself burning in Hades is one of the themes which is like a figure of speech, and the placing of his own face beneath a woman's mask is a direct symbol as is the fragment of the skeleton in the lithograph self-portrait, the fourth of the decade. The portrait With a Cigarette has no overt symbol but depends on the representation of visual reality; it alone conveys a sense of a moment of real time and of natural atmosphere and space.
For all their differences each portrait has the same theme fundamentally, the inner tension and anxiety of the man, but each work presents a single aspect of the basic condition. They are all images of Munch as he thought of himself. He is suffering but bitterly defiant in the painting In Hell. In Under the Mask he seems absorbed in awareness of the woman's power and responds to it as the lowered lids and sensual, slightly parted lips make plain. The drawing in the lithograph of 1895 is very close to the latter, but the important difference is the shift of emphasis in the features: the lips are barely indicated while the eyes dominate with an expression of thought without the slightest hint of awareness of the senses. Under the spell of death, Munch is ascetic and somber; the black background, which eliminates the body and isolates the head, reinforces this other-worldly mood.
With a Cigarette presents Munch as he thought of himself as seen by the world. He stands slightly turned to the right, suggesting that he had been moving from left to right, his face turned toward the spectator as if his attention had been suddenly attracted, and pauses while the smoke of his cigarette rises. His eyes stare under arched brows, but the sober cast of the features of the lower part of his face-the set chin and the lips in a straight line --seems due to serious thought. The hand holding the cigarette is tense with the outer fingers spread. The purplish shadow with which the coat and hair blend is cast by the single light-source of the painting.
The figure emerges partially from the shadow just as the external distraction brings the mind from absorption in itself. This painting stands out from the other self-portraits in this relatively complex balance of inner and outer attention, and it differs from them correspondingly in the complexity of the way it is painted. Two things were required by Munch to convey his concept, luminous darks from which a few forms could stand out in light and precise articulation of the features and the hand; for each effect, as has been noted, he used paint in a different manner.
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