Monday, May 9, 2011

Edvard Munch - Madonna

Edvard Munch, Madonna, lithograph and woodcut, 1892-1902
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)
This lithograph of a mysterious and erotic woman with moonlight cast across her face is titled Madonna.  Munch has taken a traditional religious icon and represented her as a passionate, sexual woman.  She looks as if she is in the throes of ecstasy.  This is actually a representation of Munch's conflicting ideas about women as dangerous seductress as well as the givers of life.  She is surrounded by a red frame, the color of passion and life.  The color red combined with forms resembling sperm floating on the frame is underscoring the idea of life-giving.  For Munch life and death always went hand in hand, there is a dead fetus on the bottom of the frame presenting this idea.

Paul Gauguin, Hail Mary, 1891
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When  he was in Paris, Munch was enthralled by Paul Gauguin's work.  Gauguin was also doing biblical images around this time and  he was obsessed with Eve.  In Hail Mary he reworked the western concept of Mary with the symbols of another culture.  Gauguin's Mary was brown and wearing a red pareu, while an angle with yellow wings is presenting the Madonna and Child to two half naked Tahitian women in western style prayer poses.  In the lush setting, exotic fruits are laid out at the bottom of the picture, recalling an altar.
Similar to Gauguin, Munch is reworking the theme of the Madonna here, in his own visual vocabulary.  While the primitive was Gauguin's obsession, Munch was interested in sex, life and death.

By representing the dead fetus, he might also be tipping his hat to the French Symbolists because he wanted to show these paintings in Paris.  There was an obsession with degeneration of society and depopulation in France at this time. The French Symbolists were also depicting dead fetus' because of the beginnings of the feminist movement and women having less babies, society was developing a fear concerning the drop in the birth rate and abortion.  On the one hand there is woman as seductress and on the other the symbol of death - life and death going hand in hand together in art as well as society's conscious.

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