Two Iconic Artists in a Long-Awaited Exhibition

Authored by André Gali

The art world has been waiting for an exhibition like this for a long time, says Magne Bruteig, who together with Maite van Dijk from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam among others has curated the first large dual exhibition of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh since 1912. I have spoken to van Dijk and Bruteig about the similarities between the two artists, and the curators could promise both iconic works and works you may never have seen before.

How did the idea to show an exhibition of Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh together develop?

Maite van Dijk: I think that it was in the air that there is an affinity between Munch and Van Gogh. It is not uncommon that people mistake the work of one for the other. We did a survey at the Van Gogh Museum where we looked at frequently asked questions about Van Gogh, and one of them was "why isn't The Scream in this museum?" People obviously believed that Van Gogh painted it. So that shows that people link these two artists together. While looking at a painting by Munch five years ago, we thought it would be a great idea to show these two iconic artists together, so we approached the Munch Museum in Oslo, and Magne Bruteig, and they were interested in the idea.

Magne Bruteig: When Maite approached us, I was enthusiastic about it from the start, because it is not just the general public who links these artists together. I think the art world has been waiting for an exhibition like this for a long time. There was one famous exhibition in 1912 where an even larger number of paintings by Van Gogh and Munch were included as part of a large overview of modern art, but aside from that these two artists have not been seen together on this scale. We have selected a large number of works including some very well-known ones by both artists, but also works rarely seen, which are important in this context.

Munch and Van Gogh were both in the process of establishing themselves as artists in the 1880s and frequented some of the same milieus, and both travelled to Paris on various occasions. To what degree did the artists know about each other?

Magne Bruteig: Munch eventually became interested in and knew Van Gogh's art very well. There is a passage in Munch's writings where he refers to Van Gogh: "Fire and ardour were in his brush during the few years that he consumed himself for his art". Munch seems to have felt that he shared a particular passion with Van Gogh, at least he admired his energy.

Maite van Dijk: They circulated in some of the same milieus in Paris, and knew the same people, but there is no evidence that they actually met, even though they could have done so. On a number of occasions when Munch came to Paris, Van Gogh had just left, and vice versa, but there was one exhibition we know they both visited in 1889, so we can fantasize that they met. There is no written evidence to support this, however, so we can only speculate about it.

Would you say that Munch was influenced by Van Gogh's work?

Magne Bruteig: It is often difficult to talk about influences, because artists are always picking up ideas from what they see, but I would say that Munch was very much inspired by Van Gogh's work. We know that Munch was well informed about other artists in general, and that he virtually absorbed everything that was going on around him and knew about the defining artists of his time. The art historian Julius Meier-Graefe, who was a friend of Munch's in the early days, was very interested in Van Gogh. In the beginning of the 1900s Meier-Graefe wrote favourably about Van Gogh and less favourably about Munch, and after this it appears that Munch changed his style a little. Meier-Graefe was the first to write extensively about the artistic affinity between the two artists.

Maite van Dijk: As Magne says, influence is a very difficult word to use when talking about art, it is more a poetic interpretation of someone else's work, which is processed into something new. But especially after 1900 you can see that Van Gogh has influenced Munch in the landscape paintings. You can also see similarities between Van Gogh and Munch in their bold use of colour and the way they build their composition and perspective.

Paris seems to have been important for the development of both artists, what was going on there at that time?

Magne Bruteig: Paris was extremely important for them both. After they moved to Paris they started developing into the artists whom we have come to know as Munch and Van Gogh. They picked up every new artistic development in Paris, tried new techniques and took what they needed from different artists. You had Impressionism and Post-impressionism going on at that time as well. And Paul Gauguin was important to them, especially to Van Gogh, but Munch was also inspired by Gauguin.

Maite van Dijk: Gauguin and Van Gogh spent time together, but they had different conceptions about what art should be and there is the famous story about how that friendship ended. Van Gogh wanted art to be about everyday life and come from the heart. For Gauguin art should come from the head. For Munch art should also come from the heart.

Both artists led dramatic lives, and the myths about them seem to emphasize the connection between the two. To what degree have the artists' lives been relevant to you when working with this exhibition?

Magne Bruteig: One has to say that Van Gogh's life was more dramatic, but Munch also lived a rather dramatic life at times, and he had a mental breakdown in 1908. What is interesting is that they both grew up in somewhat similar Protestant circumstances. Van Gogh's father was a minister in the Protestant church, while Munch's father was a doctor who was very religious minded.

Maite van Dijk: In hindsight I think we make their lives more important than they were because of the art. The general public is virtually obsessed with their lives, which read almost like a Hollywood drama, but it is difficult sometimes to separate the myths from the artworks. I believe that the myths are not that important to understanding the art and I think both museums are struggling to draw attention back to the art.

Are there any particular works you would like to mention that will be shown in this exhibition?

Maite van Dijk: There are some works where you really can sense that Munch must have seen a certain painting by Van Gogh, but I feel that some of the important pictures are those that don't really strike you as similar, but have a similarity in that they present a strong message to the public about human suffering, love, spirituality … There will be a section in the exhibition devoted to paintings that most strongly depict themes like these about human existence, with The Scream placed next to a picture by Van Gogh of a wheatfield beneath thunderclouds, for example – both deal with the forces of nature but using very different imagery. For me this is the core of the exhibition.

Magne Bruteig: To mention some favourites, I would like to draw attention to a couple of drawings by Van Gogh. In general the drawings are astonishingly accomplished and powerful. Among the selection of his drawings in the exhibition are a wonderful early pen drawing of an alley of birches, and a late reed-pen drawing of trees overgrown with ivy in the garden of his asylum.