Saturday, May 21, 2016

Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life

Munch Museum
June 18, 2016 - September 25, 2016
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA)  
November 12, 2016 - February 20, 2017
This exhibition examines the connection between Edvard Munch's work and one of the truly great names in contemporary art – Jasper Johns. Never before has there been such a comprehensive exhibition of Johns' art in Scandinavia.

Johns (born in 1930) made his breakthrough on the American art scene in the latter half of the 1950s, with paintings based on widely known symbols like the American flag, targets, numbers and letters. His art broke with the subjective and spontaneous painting of the abstract expressionism that had dominated American art in the 1940s and 1950s. Together with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Johns was a precursor to the 1960s' pop art in the US. He also had close relationships at this time with other artists, including the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage. An important source of inspiration for Johns was Marcel Duchamp and his conceptual approach to creating art.
Johns explicitly distanced himself from the idea of art as subjective expression. He thus forms something of a counterpoint to the expressionist tradition that Munch helped found. It is therefore particularly interesting that Johns at a later stage became interested in Munch's art. His first direct encounter with Munch was at an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950, when Johns was 20. We do not know much about what kind of impression Munch's art left on the young Johns, but some 25 years later – from the late 1970s – references to Munch started appearing in his work. This was a period of important changes in Johns' art, in terms of both motifs and form. He started including figurative elements, spatial perspective, references to time and existential issues in his pictures. He has been inspired by Munch's treatment of topics such as love, fear, illness and death, among others. At the same time he was also interested in Munch's experimental approach to art.

This exhibition aims to show that Munch has had a far greater influence on Johns than was previously known. The exhibition consists of about 130 works – paintings, prints, drawings and photographs. An important factor is the way Munch's late self-portrait


Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–1942) is linked to Johns' series of abstract cross-hatch works that became something of a signature motif for him in the 1970s. The similarity between Johns' cross-hatch pattern and the pattern on the bedspread in Munch's self-portrait was not originally intended. However, from 1980–1984 Johns chose to use this similarity explicitly in a series of paintings with the same title as Munch's painting:

Between the Clock and the Bed  by Jasper Johns - Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981 by Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns
Between the Clock and the Bed, 1980 and 1988
Ink and watercolor on plastic
Sight: 13-1/4 x 22-1/2 inches. Sheet: 18-1/4 x 26-1/4 inches
Another part of the exhibition focuses on how Johns has been inspired by another of Munch's self-portraits,

 Self Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

a lithograph in which Munch places a skeleton arm under his own portrait, as an emblem of death.

Johns was also interested in Munch's suggestive use of shadow and the human figure. This is particularly noticeable in a series of paintings from the second half of the 1980s where Johns introduces the human figure as a subject in his pictures for the first time. This reflects a new existential element in his art.

Munch’s Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-43, from a friend who had noticed similarities between the bedspread in the painting and Johns’s crosshatch motif.  While the resemblance was coincidental, Johns went on to make a least 12 more works with overt references to Munch’s art.

The Exhibition

Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch assembles 128 works, including many important paintings, drawings, and prints in once-in-a-lifetime combinations to trace the route Johns traveled to find what he needed in Munch’s work.  The journey was shaped in part by chance: a quarter century after having first encountered Munch’s art at MoMA, for instance, Johns received a postcard of

In the exhibition, for the first time in 20 years, the three monumental Between the Clock and the Bed paintings Johns created in the 1980s will be shown side-by-side.  For the first time ever, they will be exhibited alongside their namesake, Munch’s Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-43, as well as the actual bedspread from Munch’s home that is pictured in the painting.

The exhibition begins by exploring how Johns single-mindedly pursued abstraction during the 1970s by creating variation after variation of the crosshatch motif—and how crosshatching provided a starting point for him to rediscover Munch. These early sections feature Corpse and Mirror II, 1975-76, and the Whitney Museum exhibition print Savarin, 1977. These works are paired with the iconic The Scream, 1895, Angst, 1896, and The Kiss, 1902, among other works by Munch on loan from the Munch Museum, and together show how Johns transformed a simple can filled with brushes into a surrogate self-portrait that suggests an emerging awareness of Munch’s experimental woodcuts and lithographs.

Johns’s work showed a mounting tension between formalism and strong emotion in the late 1970s, and he began to subvert abstraction by inserting overt references to sex and death into many of his most ambitious paintings. Major loans show the evolution of this change:

Dancers on a Plane, 1981; both the oil and watercolor versions of Cicada, 1979; and

Tantric Detail, 1980. 

From the Munch Museum come several versions of Munch’s haunting Madonna, and the large-scale The Dance of Life, 1925, among other works.

Representing the moment in Johns’s career when he abandoned the crosshatch motif altogether and returned to recognizable imagery, In the Studio, 1982 and Perilous Night, 1982, are juxtaposed with paintings and prints by Munch that reflect the Norwegian artist’s anxieties about aging, illness, loss, and mortality. An exploration of Johns’s 1982 Savarin monotypes shows how Johns used the print medium to drill down further into motifs related to Munch, including crosshatching, woodgrain, handprints and armprints, and even sperm.

The last section in the exhibition proposes several important new ideas about the Johns/Munch connection involving shadows and ghosts. Here, all four of Johns’s Seasons paintings (1985-86) and a large selection of Seasons drawings and prints, including a number from Johns’s own collection, are paired with Munch’s Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903; Starry Night, 1922-24; Self Portrait at Quarter Past Two in the Morning, 1940-44, and numerous other self-portrait paintings, drawings, and prints. A dozen experimental photographs by Munch are here as well.  Cumulatively, these bodies of work suggest that Munch’s fascination with the shadow as an alter ego capable of expressing feelings about life and death came to be shared by Johns.

While showing how Johns used Munch’s motifs to open up his own work to greater expressiveness, the exhibition also demonstrates a circularity between influence, interpretation, and appropriation. “The way that Johns internalized and processed Munch’s images shows that Munch’s work is still evolving in how it is received by artists and others,” says Ravenal.

“This exhibition is a case study for the complex and unexpected ways that artists draw inspiration from the art of the past,” says Alex Nyerges, Director of VMFA.  “It’s also a reminder that however methods and technologies change, today, as ever, the real basis for the value of a comprehensive art museum like VMFA is its imaginative capacity to make new connections and expand the knowledge of the works of art in its permanent collections.”
Jasper Johns + Edvard Munch is a joint project with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, USA. After its spell at the Munch Museum, the exhibition will be shown there in autumn 2016. The curator of the exhibition is John Ravenal, the former curator at VMFA, and the current director of the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum outside Boston, USA. Ravenal is the editor of

the exhibition catalogue, which is published by Yale University Press. It is fully illustrated and contains an article written by Ravenal.