Last night, I was one amid the crowd at the Norwegian embassy in Washington, D.C., at a reception announcing the cooperation between the Edvard Munch Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to present an intriguing exhibition that pairs Munch with the quite American Jasper Johns, Nov. 12 through Feb. 20, 2017, at the VMFA.
I discussed with Jon-Åge Øyslebø, that legation’s counselor for communications, cultural affairs and education, the Munch collection, which is moving in a couple of years to a more central part of Oslo. I went on to expound on my good fortune to be able to walk a few blocks to our museum and how for other visitors, the VMFA is fairly close to major highway exits. Øyslebø noted how, when looking at the VMFA’s website, he was impressed by the numerous related activities. “It is really wonderful to see all that is going on there.” And much more in relation to this upcoming exhibition.
As VMFA Director Alex Nyerges pointed out with pride in his remarks, "You'd have to have gone to Oslo to see this show, but we're bringing it to Richmond – the only place in the country where you'll see this unprecedented pairing of these two artists."
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The VMFA’s Alex Nyerges points out that the Johns-Munch exhibit won’t be seen anywhere else in the United States outside of Richmond. Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas is at right. (Photo by Amie Oliver)
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Norwegian Ambassador Kåre R. Aas, VMFA Director Alex Nyerges, and John B. Ravenal, executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum and former Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art for the VMFA (Photo: David Stover © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
Johns, in mid-career, during a decade of highly abstract work, commits an about-face and returns to representation. The kernel for the turnaround came by inspiration from Munch, proposed exhibition curator John B. Ravenal. Now the executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Ravenal was previously the VMFA's Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. While at the VMFA, Ravenal had the time to contemplate and investigate how a mid-20th-century abstract expressionist found resonance in the work of the early 20th-century Norwegian expressionist.
In his remarks at the embassy, Ravenal said, with some humor, “At first glance, one might think, ‘This is something a curator is making up to create this crazy mashup.’ ” But, as Ravenal goes on to show, a direct connection can be found. “I didn’t invent it, I didn’t discover it, but this is the first time that the relationship over time between Munch and Johns receives exploration in detail.” He noted, too, that artists working in the present dip into the past as one might lower hands into the flow of water. The ideas are the stream that the artist may “repeat, recycle, repurpose,” for their own ends.
Here’s Ravenal in a brief overview of the Munch-Johns connection:
Many people who may not even have heard of Munch know his painting, “The Scream" (also known as "The Cry" or "The Scream of Nature"), depicting a bridge walk at sunset of a figure paralyzed and yelling in fear as ambiguous figures lurk behind him and gradated strands of bloody light arch above and reflect in the ominous waters below. The face in the forefront – that resembles a pop-culture depiction of a space alien, or even a mummy – isn’t hiding his eyes, he’s covering his ears.
In his writing about the inspirational experience, Munch describes a psychic opening or epiphany that made him hear a huge outpouring from the world that caused him to stop and tremble in fear. The result became one of the most famous paintings ever. In a Munch documentary, curator Jon-Ove Steihaug explains, “The scream is something you do when you are born, maybe when you die, when you hurt. So it’s something you can immediately relate to.”
(The name and melancholy lend a special quality to Richard Belzer’s show-jumping Detective John Munch.)
For more on the Norwegian artist, take a look at this.
Johns’ recognizable and familiar images include nested interpretations of the United States flag and archery or shooting-style targets with plaster faces overlooking them – although their eyes are hidden from view. An eerily prescient resemblance to election night coverage on cable news can be found in his “Map,” completed in 1961.
“Jasper Johns & Edvard Munch: Love, Loss & the Cycle of Life,” features 128 works by both artists. One aspect of the exhibition includes Johns’ colossal three-panel “Between the Clock and the Bed,” alongside for the first time Munch’s “Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed,” and the bedspread that Munch depicted in his painting. “Ravenal … put a little postcard reproduction beside it of the 1940-3 painting by the Norwegian artist, Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed,” writes The Guardian’s Maev Kennedy. “But every time he walked through the gallery, he had to explain the link to baffled visitors struggling to spot any connection beyond the titles.”
Tickets for nonmembers are $15, $12 for seniors and $10 for students, and are available online. There are a number of talks and gallery events connected to the show, including an opening night lecture by Ravenal, Fri. Nov. 11 ($8). His opener will be a piano performance by Else Olsen Storesund of John Cage’s “The Perilous Night,” composed for “prepared piano.” This’ll definitely put you in a mood for Johns and Munch together.