At a crossroads in the middle of his career, Jasper Johns (1930) found his way forward in part by looking to the work of Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Now a ground-breaking exhibition entitled Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life examines how Johns, one of America’s preeminent artists, mined the work of the Norwegian Expressionist in the late 1970s and early 1980s as he moved away from a decade of abstract painting towards a more open expression of love, sex, loss and death.
Organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in partnership with the Munch Museum, Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch opened in Oslo on June 18, 2016, and traveled to Richmond on November 12, 2016 to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where it will continue through February 20, 2017.
“The depth of the relationship between Johns and Munch has never been explored as systematically, nor illustrated as stunningly, as it will be in this international exchange,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges. Including more than 120 paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, the exhibition has been conceived and organized by John B. Ravenal, Executive Director of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and former Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the VMFA.
Ravenal calls the two artists “strange bedfellows” in the accompanying volume, Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Inspiration and Transformation, co-published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Yale University Press, in partnership with the Munch Museum. By the turn of the last century, Munch had worked his way towards a figurative style shaped by the emotions that preoccupied him--anxiety, loneliness, jealousy, fear, and grief. Johns, on the other hand, has been quoted as saying “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” when describing why he turned his back on Abstract Expressionism to paint familiar, even neutral, images like flags, targets, and numbers.
Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch assembles 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 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.
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 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 comes 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 Nerges, director of the 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 the VMFA is its imaginative capacity to make new connections and expand the knowledge of the works of art in its permanent collections.