When it comes to emotionally-charged painting, numerous artists come to mind – certainly all the Expressionists. But in a current show, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam makes a case for just two artists, contending that the lives and art of this particular duo attests to a rare mutuality owing to their tormented lives – Van Gogh and Edvard Munch. “Their lives are remarkably similar in many ways,” says the museum’s promo. “Their visions on life and art are closely related.” Both statements are questionable.
Maybe other Expressionists aren’t iconic enough to sell tickets, but a slew of them suffered torment in their lives no less painful than the miseries of Van Gogh and Munch. The ordeals of Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz come to mind.
Kollwitz lost both a son in World War I and a grandson in World War II and these losses showed up in her paintings bearing titles like “Woman Welcoming Death, “and “Death and the Mothers.” Kahlo’s spine and pelvis were crushed in a trolley car accident during her teens, and having undergone thirty-five operations, lived in pain until she died at age forty-four. Her art, painted either from a wheelchair or bed, often centered on her maimed body which she viewed in a mirror.
To make the case for the parallels in life and art between Van Gogh and Munch, the Van Gogh Museum offers paintings like “Starry Night” and “The Scream.” Where is the commonality? Van Gogh was a deeply religious man and it showed in his work. “The Starry Night” describes twisting cypress trees as if they were thrusting themselves heavenward.” And he pictured the blinding white light of stars with radiating lines so that they look alive and spin through the sky – as though to compel people to marvel and wonder at their celestial beauty.
In contrast, Munch was obsessed with sickness, death and the despairing figures that inhabited his childhood. His sister died of TB. His mother also died early of consumption and he was raised by a nervous father to fear illness and death. “The Scream” shows a nightmarish vision of swirling brushwork and shrieking color. The blood-red sky and pitchy waterway take on the scream‘s reverberations. The echo seems to come back at the screaming figure holding his (or her) ears. “The Scream” is practically a self-portrait.
If the museum wanted to focus on artists in pain, Van Gogh and Munch certainly fit the bill, but again, not in a unique way. Trying to match the cause of their pain doesn’t work. Besides, pain is pain no matter what the cause. Their visions on life and art don’t have to match up, do they?