Munch & van Gogh: so close so far

 “Yes, artists perpetuate themselves, passing on the torch, Delacroix to the Impressionists, &c. But is that all?”, van Gogh pondered in a letter to his brother Theo in early August 1888, at thirty-five years old, just before painting the Sunflowers. We are in Provence, at the Yellow House, the Studio of the South, the crowning of a dream that would not last.


Years later, Edvard Munch reflects on a van Gogh who “did not allow his flame to go out. Fire and embers were his brushes during the few years of his life, whilst he burned out for his art”. It is October 1933, Munch is seventy years old and for many years he has lived secluded in Ekely, the estate he had bought in 1916, not far from Oslo. “I have thought, and wished, that in the long term, with more money at my disposal, like him, I would not let my flame go out, and with a burning brush paint until the end.”


And it is this flame that burned in both of them that is at the heart of the Munch:van Gogh exhibition, open at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 17 January 2016 and curated by Maite van Dijk, Magne Bruteig  and Leo Jansen. It is the first event to be held since the recent inauguration of the new entrance to the museum, a giant half-moon of glass on the Museumplein (designed by the Kisho Kurokawa studio) that, standing next to the semi-circular building erected in 1999 by the late Japanese architect, glistens in the sunlight but particularly stands out at night, beaming among the lights of the other museums around the square.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (1888), van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Edvard Munch, Red Virginia Creeper (1888-1890), Munch-Museum, Oslo


Born ten years apart, van Gogh (1853-1890) and Munch (1863-1944) began their lives as artists in the same year: 1880. The young Munch enrols at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (today Oslo), while van Gogh, now twenty seven, enrols at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. Inspired by the naturalism of their most admired painters, such as Christian Krohg (Munch), Jean-François Millet and Jozef Israëls (van Gogh), they continue the classical themes but soon break with tradition in their first two masterpieces, The Potato Eaters (van Gogh, 1885) and Morning  (Munch, 1884). These paintings mark a flight from their homelands; received with hostility by their contemporaries, it is almost as though they establish that in their own countries there was nothing more to seek.


They arrived in Paris in the same years, but the two never met. The search for some trace of an encounter has left curators with bated breath. In 1885, Munch stayed 3 weeks in Paris at the foot of Montmartre in rue Laval 32 bis, a stone’s throw from Theo’s house at number 26, but van Gogh was still in Holland… Later, when Vincent lived in Paris (1886 – 1888) Munch was between Norway and Denmark; Munch arrived back in Paris in 1889, but van Gogh was by then in Provence.  The only direct link: the Dutch painter Hans Heyerdahl, whom Theo knew because he was represented by Goupil where he worked, in brief Theo was his art dealer. In 1882, he praised van Gogh’s work, in particular the lithograph Sorrow, and Vincent sent a copy to his brother to pass on to him. It’s a small world: Heyerdahl was a friend of the young Munch and they spent the summer painting in Åsgårdstrand together… it is possible that he introduced his friend Edvard to Theo at Goupil, but no concrete evidence has been found.


We do know, however, that in March 1890 Munch visited the Exposition des Indépendants where Vincent (who was in Saint-Rémy) had ten paintings on display. After Vincent’s death, the gallerist Ambroise Vollard, with whom Munch was in contact, exhibited more than 100 of Vincent’s works. Conclusion: van Gogh never saw Munch’s work, and probably he didn’t know of his existence, but Munch had seen Vincent’s work up close and might have heard talk of him quite early. Munch exhibited his work in Paris at Siegfried Bing in 1896, and the following year the French critic Thadée Natanson (founder of the art and literature magazine La Revue Blanche), was the first to describe Munch as one of the artists influenced by van Gogh.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Montmartre, behind the Moulin de la Galette (1887), van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Edvard Munch, Spring Day on Karl Johan Street (1890), Munch Museum, Oslo


But missed opportunities and street numbers aside, of great interest is the way in which both artists experienced the impressionist lesson in Paris. They soaked it in and mastered it almost immediately as these two enchanting windows show us – Montmartre, behind the Moulin de la Galette (van Gogh) and Spring Day on Karl Johan Street (Munch) – but they set it aside just as quickly in search of autonomy and styles of their own. For both, painting had to be free first and foremost. To exercise this individual freedom was their highest priority. Both committed to expressing the human condition, in 1889-1890 Munch wrote down his artistic credo in what would become the ‘Manifesto of St. Cloud’: “[…] there should be no more paintings of interiors and people reading and women knitting. There should be images of living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love  […]”. In Paris, van Gogh had already poured his soul into a pair of shoes and had made a decisive leap forward in colour and in the world of Japanese art, painting Agostina Segatori, owner of Le Tambourin café, in two versions made in a short period but that seem lightyears apart: the first is in the impressionist style and depicts her sitting at a table in the bar, the second a quasi-mask with an enigmatic gaze, an icon on a golden yellow background (The Italian Woman). At Bing’s in Paris, van Gogh falls in love with the Japanese prints, a new baggage to take to the sun in Provence; Munch will draw on the graphic work of Gauguin. His paintings, with their simplified, essential forms, are an inspiration for both.


At the turn of the century, their work is appreciated in Germany, and there the two artists are displayed side by side for the first time. In 1904, Paul Cassirer, who had been selling Vincent’s works for a few years, exhibited some of their canvases together in his Berlin gallery, and soon after, his brother Bruno obtained the exclusive rights for Munch’s graphic work in Germany. Their only great ‘encounter’ took place in Cologne in 1912, at the Sonderbund exhibition (alongside stars such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Signac): the most celebrated as the father of new painting is Vincent van Gogh with 130 works, followed by Munch, with 32. Munch is about to turn 50, he has just got his life in order, a change of lifestyle; van Gogh has been gone for 22 years.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, The Bedroom (1888), van Gogh Museum; Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), Munch Museum, Oslo


Two troubled lives, dramatic episodes, failed romances, no children: they were both immersed in the idea that art is a mission and, as such, requires complete dedication, art above all else. In different but somehow parallel ways, the legendary lives of these two icons of modernity contributed to the creation of the myth: alienation, solitude, alcoholism, and psychiatric commitment have marked the lives of the two painters, often overshadowing what was at the heart of their artistic careers. A career that in van Gogh’s case is tragically cut short after only ten years, whereas Munch worked into his eighties, witnessing the recognition of his own work. They are two figures for whom the systematic and scientific studies of the last few decades have aimed to move past the persistent heritage of the mythicized and romanticised artists, towards a historic and technical-scientific vision that allows greater insight into the complexity of their work and the objectives of their research. This, essentially, is one of the great silent endeavours of the exhibition. Conceived six years ago and curated by Europe’s two most important monographical museums – the Munch Museum in Oslo and the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam -, the event brings with it this shift in thinking. More than a hundred masterpieces by the two artists (around 80 paintings and 30 works on paper), hang side by side and create a unique tension, disorienting in a way.


We come across shared passions and themes: nature is a great draw and a source of strong emotions, vital nourishment for both, “je mange toujours de la nature”, writes van Gogh from Provence to his painter friend Émile Bernard, “I’m still living off the real world. I exaggerate, I sometimes make changes to the subject, but still I don’t invent the whole of the painting; on the contrary, I find it ready-made – but to be untangled – in the real world”.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Undergrowth (1889), van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Edvard Munch, Spring in the Elm Forest (c.1923), Munch Museum, Oslo


Munch too would never completely abandon reality and nature as starting points and twenty years later, in 1908, he wrote: “Nature all the way. True to the last. […] The same motifs. In sunshine – rain – summer and winter … […] One does not paint / from nature / one takes from it /or serves oneself from its / bountiful platter”. Essential shapes, brushstrokes now quick and rhythmic, now sinuous and enveloping, contrasting colours, these are some of the directions their research takes. van Gogh seeks depth by almost completely forgoing the horizon, Munch paints two felled trunks that create a strong spacial effect. Two woods with no end, or at least it seems, in any direction.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890), Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati; Edvard Munch, The Yellow Log (1912), Munch Museum, Oslo


In his writings, Munch once compared himself to van Gogh in terms of a common feeling: “To depict intense Emotions only through working Directly from Nature – or Nature seen in an intense emotional state is extremely Nerve-wracking work –

In a few Hours to absorb the relatively  indifferent Nature in oneself – then in these Few Hours to allow it to be revealed filtered  through the chambers of the Eye – the Brain the Nerves – the Heart glowing in the … of Passion – the Soul’s Inferno – is extremely taxing on the Nervous system ( F[or example] van Gogh ) (in part myself ”.


And so we see the life cycle, fertility, the Nordic moon, the sun of Provence, the starry sky taken on with the urgency of men who want to take painting into the unknown. But this same urgency does not exclude calm and determination for either of them. On the contrary, both repeatedly pick up the same themes and subjects, where they experiment with new cycles, trusting in explosions of colour or density of material, pure pigments and simultaneous contrasts, dilated perspectives or claustrophobic spaces, complex and refined techniques that remain principally in the background, producing an effect of apparent and surprising simplicity.


This immediacy of discourse, so direct and comprehensible for all, is one of the magical characteristics they share and that makes their work something universal that speaks right to the heart of the observer. A true mission.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rône (1888), Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Edvard Munch,  Starry Night (1922-24), Munch Museum, Oslo


In September 1888, van Gogh goes out to paint at night: “– the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp”, he includes a sketch for his brother, it is the starry night over the Rône. “[…] That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars […]”. His nocturnal roaming did not go unnoticed and was even reported in a short article in the Arles newspaper, but the sky and stars are for everyone. van Gogh is looking for a new religion, “Victor Hugo says, God is a lighthouse whose beam flashes on and off, and so now, of course, we’re passing through that darkness”. He wants something that “would be calming on us that would console us”. Munch too is fascinated by the night, and produces various versions of the starry sky over the fjords, the first are pervaded by a blue veil (1893), the moon of the north is reflected opaque in the sea forming a column that looks like mercury, almost a measure of his melancholy; the final version, thirty years later, seems inspired by Vincent’s canvas that he would have seen in Paris, animated by lights on the horizon, the stars shine, a figure in the bottom right passes like a shadow: we recognise his profile.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, The Bridge at Trinquetaille (1888), van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893), Munch Museum, Oslo


Tempests of emotions, universal themes, “angst”, “consolation”, “suffering”, side by side for the first time: The Scream by Munch and The Bridge at Trinquetaille by van Gogh, Madonna next to La Berceuse, The Sick Child alongside The Garden of the Asylum.  But where van Gogh painted the holy side of nature and the shining soul of its models, making them universal ‘types’, and imbuing them with a special holiness – Munch, basing his work on his personal experiences, things he had lived, digs among the shadows of the human condition: jealousy, angst, despair, love, death are themes he investigates repeatedly also in his extraordinary graphic work, laid bare before us. So distant. And yet  both think of them presented together, like great polyptychs, the musicians of the symphony of life they want to express. Both of them like the word ‘symphony’, which has to do with Wagner, whom they admire, but above all relates well to colours and shapes that create a reciprocal tension and resonance. They realise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In 1902, Munch exhibits his most famous project, The Frieze of Life (which he would continue working on for thirty years) in Berlin. In 1888, van Gogh had produced a series of paintings for the Yellow House that he called Décoration.


Opposite outcomes, but they feel the same thing. As van Gogh cites Millet “pain is, perhaps, that which makes the artist express himself most distinctly”, Munch writes in his notebooks: “What is art?  Art emerges from joy and pain. Mostly from pain”.


Disquiet souls, errant, polyglots. Both are avid readers and write a lot. From van Gogh we have more than eight hundred letters in three languages (Dutch, French, English []) most of which were to his brother Theo; from Munch there are more than 2600, again in three languages (Norwegian, German, French) with around 400 correspondents, relatives, friends, lovers, writers, critics, gallerists and art collectors. The multilingual aspect is something else they have in common, and derives for both from their long stays abroad and their passion for literature.


For van Gogh, writing was an appointment with art and with Theo, with his painter friends, as well as with himself, introspection, also. In his letters, from 1880 onwards, we can follow the progression of his work step by step – full of sketches next to his words – the studies of colour, his reasons, his credo, his favourite books. He often makes analogies between painting and writing and the words come “one after the other” like brushstrokes on the canvas. Vincent perhaps is aware of his skill as a writer – he only acknowledges it in a single letter to his brother he sent from Provence. At a certain point he is also aware of the importance of correspondence between painters and as soon as he arrives in Arles he writes to Theo: “It will perhaps be interesting to keep the artist’s correspondence”. But van Gogh, as an artist explorer who travelled light, did not save the letters he received, and he certainly was not writing for a public readership but because he wanted and needed to: it was not just a human need, but an artistic, literary and fraternal need.


For Munch, things were very different. He was part of the circle of Bohémiens of Kristiania that revolved around the anarchical writer Hans Jæger, whom he frequented religiously between 1891 and 1895, absorbing his artistic ideals: “write your life,” “free love”, two founding mottos. In the famous Self-Portrait with Cigarette (1895), he depicts himself as a bohémien artist, without his work tools, surrounded by an aura of mystery in the blue smoke that pervades the canvas, - it was not coincidence that his friend August Strindberg photographed himself with a cigarette for his business card. And thus he defines his artistic statute and his belonging that he will maintain over time, in Germany too, almost seeking the company of writers more than painters. He started early writing his notebooks on art, they became his travel companions (around 200 are conserved in Oslo containing more than 4,000 drawings, currently being translated []). We have aphorisms that have become famous, writings on art, drawings alongside ‘literary sketches’.


For example, one of the icons of Munch’s work, The Scream, in its various versions, is accompanied in almost every art history book by the by now famous literary sketch. It was written in 1892 for a drawing, now on display at the exhibition and also entitled The Scream, but which later evolved into the painting Despair. Munch continued to change and perfect these words for years for various publications, eventually arriving at a barer version in 1913-1915: “I walked along the road/ with two friends./ The sun set / The sky suddenly turned / to blood and I felt nature/ utter a huge scream”.


The interesting thing is that in 1895, La Revue Blanche dedicated a page to the lithographic version, immediately specifying that “The annotative text is one of these little poems that Mr. Munch has the habit of adding to his compositions. It thus represents a document in support of what we could say are the literary preoccupations of the Norwegian painter. (Le Gérant: Léon Frémont)”  The following year, the New York magazine Mademoiselle also printed the lithograph and the text, specifying that: “The painter himself has put into words his interpretation of the drawing.”


Edvard Munch, The Scream, lithograph in La Revue Blanche (1895) MM UT2, Munch Museum, Oslo


A comprehensive work then, consisting of word-images since its conception. The border is fluid, symbiotic, a land yet to be explored. This is one of the characteristics of Munch, who throughout his life continued to write poetic verses to support his works, describing experiences he really lived, and self-published several texts. As recent research shows, he also took great care over the construction of his image, of publications, of relationships with the galleries when organising his exhibitions.

It wasn’t this way for van Gogh. Writing to Theo or his painter friends he certainly wouldn’t have imagined that extracts from his letters would later become precious captions that give visitors from all over the world valuable insight into his paintings.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as a Painter (1887-88), van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Palette (1926), private collection


The self-portrait, a theme only touched upon in the exhibition, in reality holds a special place in their work, constantly in the minds of both of them. At the entrance, before anything else, we meet the two painters with their palettes. The first is thirty five years old, the second sixty three. The size of the heads is almost the same, Vincent’s gaze is solemn, that of Munch is provocatory: we immediately understand that the portrait of the self represents a great challenge for both. van Gogh does almost forty in just over three years, between 1886 and 1889 (and not in ten years as we sometimes read); by Munch we have tens of self-portraits, on canvas, paper or graphic works, but we also have many “appearances” within other compositions, often theatrical, which characterise him, without counting the dozens of photographic self-portraits, – all this over the span of sixty years, from when he was 19 until the end of his life (1882-1944). They are difficult to compare… but the underlying artistic attitude is similar. Both look to Rembrandt for the emotive charge he conveyed in portrait painting (almost sixty self-portraits), with his main de feu, “glowing hand”, as van Gogh wrote. And most of all, they both assume their own faces in the mirror not only as self-narration, or a breakthrough of the binominal likeness – representation (that they study and achieve); what interests the two men is this free place of introspective research into the condition of their own minds. A place to dig: “it’s difficult to know oneself – but it’s not easy to paint oneself either”, writes Vincent after a long period of crisis (in September 1889), placing the mirror in direct relation with the knowledge of the self. And so van Gogh looks at the reflective canvas he has just painted and sees himself as “thin, pale as a devil” as he writes to Theo. Munch paints himself in hell. The previous year, van Gogh had cut off his earlobe, Munch in 1902 had shot himself in the left hand with a pistol during the break-up of his relationship with Tulla Larsen, losing part of his finger.


From the left: Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait as a Painter (1889), National Gallery of Art, Washington; Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait in Hell (1903), Munch Museum, Oslo


It is noteworthy how, at the very beginning of their painting careers, the emergence of the photographic portrait acts as a powerful engine: it irritates them both. At the end of 1885, van Gogh, having left Holland, observes  “the many photographers” of Antwerp and concludes that “it still always remains dead”, while “painted portraits have a life that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where a machine can’t go”. Young Edvard has a similar experience, in Oslo too photography has become a source of inspiration for realist painters (including Krohg), and in Munch’s notebooks from the end of the century we read: “As long as the camera cannot be used in Hell or in Heaven, painters need have no fear of competition”. Later however, in 1902, he buys a Kodak camera (a Bull’s-eye) that he uses to begin a series of photographic experiments. Among them are many shots of himself, his own face from the front, in profile, at a 45 degree angle, double exposures that look like shadows, spirits or ghosts, a huge work that places him in the new century, inspiring new generations of artists. Many of his self-portraits on canvas derive from these photographs of himself, - for the portrait of himself with a palette there is also a photograph of him with the same pose and expression, it is the 1920’s… And in 1888, Vincent, in Arles, had “made” his portrait “in writing”, describing it for the first time in a letter to his sister Willemien. He concluded like this: “and it isn’t easy to paint oneself – in any event something different from a photograph?”.


The only artists of their time to dedicate themselves with such tenacity and impetus to the self-portrait, incarnating it in first person as a genre to be revolutionised, they were the two fundamental pillars of a bridge between one century and the next. They gave new life and autonomy to something that was until then nameless. Why nameless? Because the word ‘self-portrait’ did not exist in van Gogh’s time. It is interesting, for instance, to note how van Gogh expresses himself in his letters: “a portrait that I painted in the mirror”; “a portrait de moi même”; “un portrait de moi”; “a portrait à moi ”.


At the turn of the century the confusion is significant, with ‘portrait’ used for everything, from the portrait that an artist does of another, to the portrait of an artist done by the artist himself (Portrait de Rembrandt, de Goya is what we read in the captions in the books at the end of the century), to the photographic portrait. If we look at the first Catalogue Raisonné of van Gogh’s entire body of work, which is in French (Jacob-Baart de la Faille, 1928), the issue is quite curious. We see that, for example, for ‘self-portrait’ de la Faille uses three variations of the theme, even on the same page (the three self-portraits are all half-length). One after the other, we read: Portrait de l’artiste, Son portrait par lui mȇme, Portrait de lui mȇme. In Paris, on the other hand, at the Salon of 1905, the two self-portraits of Vincent on display are labelled as: Portrait de van Gogh, Portrait de van Gogh blessé. True, one understands what they are about, but the fact remains that a word for it did not exist. At the end of the century, the self-portrait is, to all extents, even from a linguistic point of view, a subspecies of ‘portrait’. There is simply no entry in the dictionaries of the time. This issue alone is worthy of its own book, since the earliest use of the word can be traced to very different times in the various countries, spanning thirty years, between 1898 in The Netherlands (Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal) and 1928 in France (Trésor de la Langue Française), to name just two examples. It’s also interesting to note that in Amsterdam, in 1905, the word Zelfportret was already adopted in the Stedelijk exhibition catalogue on van Gogh’s oeuvre, Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh.


So we could say that our two artists, independent figures of their time, contributed, with their prodigious production of self-portraits, not only to revolutionising a genre, but also to creating the need for a new and autonomous word. When van Gogh writes to his brother Theo “J’ai toujours éspoir que dans le portrait il nous attend encore une belle révolution” in that word ‘portrait’ there is more than we perceive today: there is also the self-portrait. And Munch, who would pose to photograph his own face, lived to witness this change. On the back of two of his photographs we see two interesting annotations, written in his hand: Berlin, 1907 Selvfotografe; Ekely, 1930, Selvportett.


But one of Munch’s most distressing self-portraits was not done from a photograph and depicts him in his bedroom, at the end of his life. At eighty, or almost (dating of the painting is disputed) he presents himself to himself and to us almost formless, between his bed and a clock with no hands – time has ended, it is no more. His clothes hang as though they were already empty. In the background, his paintings, left behind him. We do not know if this was homage to van Gogh and his bedroom, but yet, now, at the end of his life dedicated to art, he too seems to want to say: But is that all?




The English version of van Gogh’s letters quoted in this article is: Vincent van Gogh. The Letters, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, .

For Munch’s writings the English version quoted is: Edvard Munch’s Writings-English edition,

The Munch:van Gogh exhibition took place in Amsterdam, at the van Gogh Museum, in 2015-2016.

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21 July 2017