Prints of Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner recon with mental health 'Anxiety and Expression'

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Prints of Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner recon with mental health 'Anxiety and Expression'
Edvard Munch, Toward the Forest I (Mot skogen I), 1897, printed 1913–15. Woodcut printed in pink and green. Collection of Nelson Blitz, Jr., and Catherine Woodard.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- The Yale University Art Gallery now starting the exhibition Munch and Kirchner: Anxiety and Expression, organized by Freyda Spira, the Gallery’s Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints and Drawings, with the assistance of Joseph Henry, the Florence B. Selden Fellow in Prints and Drawings. The exhibition is the first to examine the work of Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, 1880–1938), demonstrating how both artists grappled with the anxieties of their age. Though they operated in very close circles and shared friends, dealers, and patrons, Munch and Kirchner surprisingly met only once, at the monumental exhibition of modern art sponsored by the Sonderbund group in Cologne in 1912. The younger and extremely ambitious Kirchner repeatedly tried to distance himself from Munch, declaring “he is the end, I am the beginning.” Nevertheless, there remain fascinating overlaps in the creative output and personal biographies of the two artists. Both Munch and Kirchner were experimental printmakers who exploited the perceptual and emotional power of color and distortion for creative expression, and both artists portrayed what they perceived to be the fragmented, harrowing reality of European modernity.

The art, science, and popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a marked interest in new questions of psychology and personal identity. Considered foundational figures of the artistic style known as Expressionism, Munch and Kirchner paved a new, visionary—even spiritual—path, especially in their printmaking practices. These artistic pursuits often overlapped with their struggles with mental health: the two men underwent existential crises, endured bouts of depression, battled with substance abuse, and received psychiatric care. To express these conditions, Munch and Kirchner thematized illness as a universal and deeply affecting human experience, and Munch, at least, often insisted that he derived his portrayals from his personal life. Their artistic output reflects, and in many cases explicitly represents, their confrontations with mental and physical health within a rapidly changing European culture. While the notion of the suffering and marginalized artist has been a key leitmotif of modern European art, its stakes were soon weaponized in this period, as seen in the Nazi persecution of both the radical avant-garde and of those perceived as mentally, physically, and racially “degenerate.”

Across six thematic sections, this exhibition explores issues around personal expression and mental health, as well as the politics of care and the transformative potential of art. The first section, “Women/Anxiety/Love/Death,” showcases prints that poignantly engage with these ideas. Here, Munch and Kirchner voice their attitudes toward sexuality and gender, their female subjects functioning as symbols of either innocence or corrupted eroticism around which sensations of violence, fear, and desire coalesce. Building on this idea, the next section, “The City,” highlights the artists’ respective engagement with the metropolis as a site of urban transformation, inspiration, and culture but also of alienation. “Landscape” presents the artists’ uniquely expressive representations of nature—prints that evoke feelings rather than accurately reproduce their surroundings.

Munch’s and Kirchner’s landscapes are spaces of melancholy, loneliness, and physical separation as well as of healing, interconnectedness, and vitality. “Illness” features a selection of self-portraits by Munch and Kirchner that explore both physical and mental ailments and touch on broader themes of psychological angst and social belonging. The exhibition concludes with two print portfolios: Kirchner’s Peter Schlemihl’s Wondrous Journey (1915) and Munch’s Alpha and Omega (1908–9). The former is a strikingly illustrated and deeply personal woodcut series that details Kirchner’s feelings of loss and alienation amid the beginnings of World War I, while the latter is a lithographic series that follows Munch’s eccentric and personal creation story.

The exhibition features a large group of prints from the collection of Nelson Blitz, Jr., and Catherine Woodard, leading collectors of Expressionism in the United States. Amassed over the course of 40 years, the Blitz-Woodard collection not only includes around a dozen woodcuts and lithographs by Munch, many printed in color and some with hand-coloring, but also stands as the most extensive group of Kirchner prints in private hands. Also included in the exhibition are works from the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection as well as from other U.S. museums.

This intriguing focus on Munch and Kirchner gathers the most current scholarship about the artists’ lives and work and considers it alongside the contemporary medical establishments and individuals who catered to the mentally ill. The exhibition and related catalogue further probe the politics of this infrastructure, from the privileges afforded to successful artists to gendered inequities in treatment. Engaging with challenging topics, Munch and Kirchner: Anxiety and Expressionism brings into sharp focus discussions about the history of psychology and psychiatry, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, as well as the relationship between mental health, well-being, and the visual arts.

The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) and the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) are considered modernist visionaries. They were also pioneering printmakers, eschewing the mastery of one technique for experimentation across many. Born a generation apart, they worked in an expressionist mode, in which they did not simply replicate what they saw but rather filtered everything through their own emotions, memories, and imaginations.

Exploiting the perceptual and emotional power of color and distortion for creative expression, they portrayed what they perceived to be a fragmented, harrowing reality; both artists endured bouts of anxiety and depression, battled substance abuse, and received psychiatric care. Featuring prints from the collection of Nelson Blitz, Jr., and Catherine Woodard, as well as etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts from select public and private collections across the United States, this volume puts these two giants of Expressionism in a dialogue that foregrounds issues of mental health and offers a fresh approach that blends art history and the medical humanities. The included essays examine the artistic affinities and divergences in their printmaking and the ways in which they used shadows to imagine pathologized psychological and psychiatric experiences in their art.

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