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Seeing Munch beyond ‘The Scream’

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Edvard Munch painted scenes from his life, including the colorful yet tense “The Artist and His Model.” (Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

Edvard Munch receives fresh consideration in a world-premiere exhibition that covers the Norwegian artist’s full career and expresses new appreciation for his later work.

Innovative, figurative and strikingly emotional paintings are on view in “Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Oct. 9.

Munch (1863-1944), underrepresented in U.S. museums, is known for highly personal depictions of desire, love, anguish and mortality, and for expert use of color and form to express feeling.

His career extended from the symbolist era into modern times, when his portrayals of isolation and being haunted were in sync with the cultural world’s interest in existentialism and the mind.

His bright colors, dynamic brushwork and unusual compositions influenced artists ranging from German expressionists to Jasper Johns. His best-known works include his “Madonna” and “Sick Child” pieces and his expressionist, iconic “The Scream.”

Unlike the many modernists fascinated with abstraction, Munch remained committed to depicting the human figure and experience. His motifs often stemmed from personal traumas and troubles, like the death of his teenage sister, of tuberculosis, and his own battles with anxiety and alcoholism.

Organized by SFMOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Munch Museum, the show contains about 45 paintings supplied by institutions and private lenders. Covering Munch’s evolution from the 1880s to the 1940s, it aims to debunk the long-held notion that the quality of Munch’s art deteriorated in the artist’s later decades.

“Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-43), Munch’s final substantial self-portrait, is at the center of this reevaluation.

The picture features an elderly Munch standing between a clock, representing the passing of time, and a bed, symbolizing mortality, with some of his paintings (which he called his children) visible on the wall behind him. Busy designs engage the eye, but the human element dominates.

Early self-portraits include the innovative “Self-Portrait With Cigarette” (1895). Munch used turpentine-diluted oil paint, resulting in a smoky-looking glaze, and incorporated the white canvas into the composition.

Two works titled “The Artist and His Model” (1919-21) also illustrate Munch’s gift for combining the painterly with the psychological. Each contains expressively loose brushwork and eye-grabbing compositions and conveys emotional tension between man and woman.

Those wishing to see “The Scream” are out of luck, but “Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair” (1892), featuring a troubled-looking figure and a turbulent red-orange sky, is a captivating precursor.

Paintings portraying love and related conditions include “The Kiss” (1897), “Jealousy” (1907), and the show’s final work, “Dance of Life” (1925).

The latter, a reworking of an earlier picture inspired by a failed relationship, contains dancing couples and white- and dark-clad solitary women. Bliss and sorrow resonate.

IF YOU GO
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, fourth floor, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays; to 9 p.m. Thursdays; and, through Sept. 4, to 8 p.m. Saturdays); closes Oct. 9
Admission: $19 to $33; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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