By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, August 1, 2010; E01
With all his "Scream"-ing and "Vampire"-ism, we tend to think of Edvard Munch as the Neurotic from Norway. What's harder to recognize is that those direct effusions from a tortured soul are, in fact, craftily organized constructions worked out over years, sometimes decades, until Munch had exhausted the options they offered.
Many of Munch's most immediately expressive paintings were refined in version after version. He even screamed his "Scream" a number of times, working through the scene's possibilities. But to see Munch digging most deeply and systematically into a single subject, you have to head to his prints.
An important new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, titled "Edvard Munch: Master Prints," explores a dozen or so emotive subjects from Munch's repertoire, sampled from the gallery's excellent Munch holdings as well as from the Epstein Family Collection, whose owners are longtime donors to the gallery, and from the important New York collection of Catherine Woodard and Nelson Blitz Jr. That sampling shows how Munch could use sequences of woodblock prints and lithographs, slightly or significantly varied over time, to come to grips with his favorite subjects.
Prints allowed the most methodical exploration of the absolutely unmethodical in life, letting an artist rework the same plate over a period of years and pull new artworks from it.
A black-and-white lithograph, printed in 1895 when Munch was 31 and a rising star, is a reprise of a painted subject originally titled "Love and Pain." It shows a couple collapsing in the throes of a hopeless romance. (Munch suffered much agony over an affair with a married woman.)
The man, respectably dressed in a suit, rests his head in the lap of a beautiful nude, who leans over and buries her face in his neck as her hair falls over his shoulders. It is a tender, poignant image of shared sorrow -- until Munch decides it shouldn't be. Swedish playwright August Strindberg had seen the painting and decided that the man was the victim of a female predator, and he suggested the new title of "Vampire." (Or so says a wall text. The exhibition's thorough catalogue, by curators Andrew Robison and Elizabeth Prelinger, attributes the change to a Polish friend of Munch's.)
Munch, always happy to raise the stakes and the emotional pitch, bought the work's new title and reading. In the four versions in this show (others exist), we see the original black-and-white litho from the Epstein collection, and then the full Draculette treatment it gets a year or so later, in a hand-colored impression from the gallery's own holdings: Munch prints his litho onto ghoulish green paper, then brushes the woman's hair in orange-red so that it can drip bloodlike down her victim. The artist even adds some varnish on top of the hair, just to give it a liquid gloss.
About six years later, in another National Gallery image, Munch decides to make a printable version of that painted variation: He takes his black-and-white litho, then makes a wood-block image of the hair alone to be printed on top in red. Another decade or so goes by and, in another Epstein version, Munch goes even more complicated. Now he's double-printing the lithograph in red and black before adding a wood-block layer in blue, green and beige.
Scanning all these versions, you see the image go from being a remote and sober recollection of a moment in the past to becoming almost cinematic in its immediacy, thanks to its lurid effects of light and color.
This is the Munch way -- try something, change it, then change it again.
Sometimes he seemed to be aiming at a definitive version: The final state of the "Vampire" print became the one he issued in quantity.
Sometimes there is only change for variation's sake, with each print existing as a different kind of work of art, scoring different points -- and selling as a separate edition. (Munch was no neurotic screamer when it came to the business side of things. Bypassing the galleries, he handled the distribution of his prints.)
On at least one occasion -- explored in detail in the online version of this package -- Munch wanted the whole series to be the work of art, the way Bach could ring the changes on a single subject in one of his grand fugues.
Over a span of at least two decades, Munch had returned again and again to an image of a young beauty and a crone by the shore. Records tell us that in the years around 1930 he assembled a set of six or seven of the most varied of those prints, as a gift or sale to a Norwegian collector who would hang them all together. In that series -- which the National Gallery bought in 1978, as its most expensive purchase of prints to that date -- it was as though the high-pitched subject itself took second place to Munch's meticulous exploration of it: Just marveling at the old woman's death's-head face seems to have been less compelling than watching Munch craft its features over time.
Edvard Munch: Master Prints
runs through Oct. 31 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Fourth Street. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov.