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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ibsen and Munch—What's the Connection?

by William Lynch

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1925. Photo: Munch Museet, Oslo.

Ibsen and Munch. What's the connection? Besides being two giants of Norwegian culture when Scandinavia was a hotbed of artistic ferment, I never really thought about it until I saw the promotional image that BAM marketing is using to promote the current production of The Master Builder, directed by Andrei Belgrader.

It was mistakable, at least to me. The arresting black-and-white photograph of actors Katherine Borowitz, John Turturro, and Wrenn Schmidt had all the weight, psychological insight, and similar composition to several of  Edvard Munch’s familiar works—among them Woman from 1925 and more specifically The Dance of Life from 1899—1900.
Katherine Borowitz, John Turturro, and Wrenn Schmidt in
The Master Builder. Photo: Graeme Mitchell
In The Dance of Life men and women dance in a garden by the sea at sunset. The most interesting aspect of the painting is the symbolic depiction of the three stages of woman in the foreground, from virginal in a white dress to worldly in a red dress, to crone in black, hands clenched in front and a look of bitterness and disappointment on her face. And of course, there is the leering man in the back aggressively handling a woman whose face we cannot see. The most compelling parallel between The Master Builder photograph and the painting, however, is the physical positioning and isolation of Borowitz as Aline, the wife of the Halvard Solness  (Turturro) who has his eye on Hilda Wengel (Schmidt). Indeed, in the photograph, Borowitz is standing separately from the other two who are seated and whose hands appear to touch provocatively. Munch’s imagery frequently presents disturbing depictions of sexuality and of woman as all consuming, even vampiric. Interestingly, venereal disease figured prominently in the work of Munch and Ibsen.

They were rough contemporaries. Ibsen (1828—1906) was some 35 years older than Munch (1863—1944). They met only occasionally and not until Munch was 30 and still a struggling artist. I think of Ibsen as rooted firmly in the style of Realism and recognized as a chief proponent of this new type of theater. Munch experimented with a number of styles from Naturalism and Impressionism to a mature style rooted in Symbolism that paved the way for German Expressionism. And, while both artists bridge the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries, I think of Ibsen in the former and Munch in the latter.  

Ibsen’s plays call for realistic settings and his stage directions are precise. He was a visual writer insofar as he knew what his characters looked like, how they were dressed, and what kind of rooms they inhabited. Munch’s compositions are similarly precise, laden with psychological insight, as with Death in the Sick Room (1893), in which the viewer has entered the room of a dying young woman whose family members’ placement and posture detail specifically their response to the unfolding grief. 

Munch's intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes was built upon the main tenets of late 19th-century Symbolism and greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. He was familiar with Ibsen’s plays, having designed a poster in 1897 for a production of John Gabriel Borkman, later designing sets for Ghosts. Some of his works were directly inspired by scenes from Borkman. If anything, Ibsen was more of an influence on Munch than the other way around. Perhaps it is enough to say that the two artists worked along similar themes. 

BAM employees Cynthia Lugo and Patrick Morin engaged the photographer Graeme Mitchell for the photo shoot. When asked about what inspired them for the look of the piece, they said “we used Munch as a visual touchstone, but more for mood and ambience. We actually tried to mimic the placement of figures in The Scream [Munch’s best-known work], but that photo didn’t make the cut.” They went on to say that they were thinking of the work of Sven Nyquist, Ingmar Bergman’s longtime cinematographer, as well as some images for Irving Penn. They chose the photographer because of the way his work evokes the arresting images of Diane Arbus, whose work displays her subject’s abnormality. 

William Lynch is BAM's director of leadership gifts.

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