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Words and Images of Edvard Munch by Bente Torjusen; hand-lettering by Clifford West (Chelsea Green: $40 before Dec. 31; $45 thereafter; 160 pp., illustrated)

November 16, 1986|Mary Kay Norseng | Norseng, professor of Norwegian language and literature at UCLA, is writing a book on Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, a friend of Munch's from the 1890s.

"Words and Images of Edvard Munch" is a beautiful book, a sensuous interplay of prints and paintings, poetic texts, color and black and white, printed on fine paper and wrapped in a soft rust jacket cover of two lovers floating through space, their feet tied together with long ribbons (Munch's "Decorative Design" from 1897). It is elegant illustration of Bente Torjusen's ultimate aim, which is to reveal the inspirational rhythms to which Munch worked. Munch was an artist who explored his archetypal themes not only through different pictorial techniques but through the different media of image and word, allowing the one to take life from the other, and the total to sing like a "symphony." "When (my paintings) were placed together/a sound went through them/right away and they became/quite different/than when they were separate," Munch wrote in 1932. We can almost hear the "sound" ourselves in "Words and Images."

Munch's nearly obsessive urge to experiment with the same themes in oils, watercolors, lithographs, woodcuts, hand-colored prints, etc. has been discussed by many Munch scholars. As they sift through his vast legacy of written materials housed in the Munch Museum in Oslo, they have also begun to pay increasing attention to his writings in relation to his art works. Torjusen, formerly in charge of public education at the museum, is, however, the first to make the dynamic juxtaposition of Munch's images and texts the focus of such a large study.

Characterized from the beginning as a "literary" artist, Munch had a symbiotic relationship with the major writers of his time, they taking inspiration from him and he from them. But he also wrote himself, and Torjusen justifiably chooses to emphasize that he "drew from his own art as his main source for new ideas." She expands the definition of his art to include a number of his poetic texts, written over a period of many years.

Isolating these texts must have been like looking for silver needles in the dark. The material in the Munch Museum is voluminous and only preliminarily catalogued. Munch wrote and saved obsessively, and experimented with many kinds of writing, feeling no need to observe conventions of any kind. Torjusen has chosen texts which for the most part Munch would have thought of as "prose poems," or literary autobiography.

In a very real sense, she fulfills a dream Munch seems to have had for many years. He had long intimated that he wanted to publish a portfolio of prints and poetic texts of his own. Torjusen assumes that he initially intended to use the prints of the so-called Mirror series, which he exhibited in Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1897. The series contained most of Munch's major works of the 1890s, including "By the Deathbed," "Madonna," "The Kiss," "Jealousy," "Vampire," "Melancholy" and "The Scream." The Mirror prints form the basis of Torjusen's book, the 13 extant ones printed for the first time in color. She adopts the same basic ordering scheme Munch had used for the original Mirror exhibition.

The images of death, so close to the root of his tortured inspiration, introduce the series, followed by the images of transformation, love and anxiety.

As a compliment to each image Torjusen has translated a poetic text on the same theme and given it equal space on the page. Some of the texts are rendered in handwritten, multicolored capital letters, a style Munch often used for his "prose poems." The lettering is done by the artist Clifford West (Torjusen's husband), who is also responsible for the design of the book. His artist's eye, as well as his knowledge of Munch, are evident throughout, contributing to the "sound" we almost think we hear.

Yet potentially there is a serious problem with "Words and Images," precisely because the "words" are given such elevated status. Munch's images are works of genius, his words are not. The former reveal unexpected depths; the latter, if asked to be art, reveal unexpected shallows. Munch may have been unable to complete his project because he was too aware of the discrepancy. For if the words are made to function on a par with their accompanying images, they have a tendency, not always but often, to trivialize or romanticize them. "The Scream" is far more desperate, "The Vampire" far more deadly, the lovers of "Attraction I" far more enveloped in death than these words can convey.

Torjusen is obviously aware of the problem. She is careful not to claim that these texts are great poetry. She seems to know, though she is careful not to say, that the words assume their real value only when contained within the frame of the images. But had she confronted the issue of quality in her introduction, she might have eliminated a certain initial dismay on the part of her readers. For given the great importance placed upon the words, we go to them with greater expectations than they can bear.

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