This painting will be included in the forthcoming Edvard Munch catalogue raisonne being prepared by the Munch-Museet, Oslo, Kaare Bernsten AS and Gallery Faurschau.
Far out there - that
Soft line where the air meets
The sea-it is as incomprehensible as
Existence - it is as incomprehensible as
Death - as eternal as longing.
And life resembles this
Calm surface - it mirrors
the bright clean colours
of the air. It hides the depths
with their slime - their
creatures - like death.'
(Edvard Munch, quoted in P. E. Tojner, Munch in his own Words, London, 2003, p. 67).
'The mystical will always be with us - the more it is discovered, the more inexplicable it will become. The new movement, the signs of whose progress can be detected everywhere, will express all those things that for a generation have been suppressed - the whole of that important mystical facet of human nature. It will give free expression to all those subtle nuances that hitherto have only been hinted at in hypotheses. A whole mass of things that cannot be rationalised - new born thoughts that are still not properly formed' (Edvard Munch, quoted in R. Stang, Munch the Man and the Artist, London, 1979, p. 79).
Depicting four youths bathing at twilight, Badende is an important work from the 1890s, that powerfully translates a simple shoreline scene into a strong and mysterious evocation of mood, and perhaps even a metaphor for the journey of life. After absorbing the impact of Impressionism and the more psychological art of Odilon Redon on his recent journeys and studies in France between 1889-1892, Munch returned periodically to his home in Kristiania (Oslo) where he was often drawn to the nearby coastal village of Aasgardstrand.
The landscape and shoreline at Aasgardstrand - that would form the setting for most of his paintings in the great series of works known as the Frieze of Life - was one that, for Munch, was a landscape of the soul - a mystical place heavily infused with an atmosphere of mystery, memory and melancholy. It was along this same shoreline in the mid-1880s that Munch had been seduced by first lover 'Frau Heiberg', first been awakened to the ecstasies and terrors of love, that were to haunt his imagination for many years after. This, along with other events and memories that were to occur on the beach, lent the Aasgardstrand shoreline, with its strange play of light on water, a unique atmosphere and transformed it in Munch's mind into a place of existential mystery that proved an important spur in the development of his art. 'Have you walked along that shoreline and listened to the sea?' he wrote of Aasgardstrand, 'Have you ever noticed how the evening light dissolves into the night? I know of no other place on earth that has such beautiful lingering twilight...to walk about that village is like walking through my own pictures' (Edvard Munch, quoted in S. Prideaux, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, New Haven, 2005, p. 122).
This psychological investing of the Aasgardstrand landscape with a role in the memories and events of his own life, was one of the characteristics that marked Munch out as the first Expressionist painter. As he explained to his friend, the art critic, Christian Krohg, in an interview given in October 1892 just before leaving for Berlin, where his forthcoming exhibition would cause one of the greatest scandals in late 19th Century art, his concept of art was opposed to the then current notion of 'Naturalism'.
'One shall not paint the way one sees, but the way one saw it,' Krohg reported Munch as saying. 'One's state of mind will never be the same today as yesterday, or the same in the evening as in the morning, so one will never be able to recapture the nuanced mental impression if one sets out to paint the way in which it is seen now. Therefore he says, it is of no use to continue a painting for long, as one has to be careful not to spoil a refined successful work by a later, different mood... It is psychic impressions, and only those, he wants to show, not a part of nature. If, for instance, clouds seemed like blood when you were in an excited mood, he says, it is not good to paint normal realistic clouds. You must go the direct way-paint clouds like blood. He thinks it must be a relief for painters to realize this, so we can never again be overtaken by photography. And he cannot understand how one can be so idiotically ambitious to think that one can paint something which approximates nature' (C. Krohg, quoted in A. Eggum, Munch and Photography, New Haven, 1989, p. 50).
Badende can be seen as a metaphor of existential revelation and the journey towards adulthood that Munch himself had made on this same shoreline. One figure tentatively enters the water amidst the sunlit rocks, another is seen slowly crouching in the shallows, while two others swim away with the light on the water, transforming their figures to look almost like mermaids. Imbued with an atmosphere of calm and transcendence, this portrait of adolescents taking a dip at twilight in this magical landscape can be seen as a metaphor for their own existential journey through life - a subject of which Munch was not only keenly aware but which forms the essence of all his Frieze of Life paintings. When understood in this context, as more than a merely literal impression of bathers at twilight, this painting can be seen as a kind of metaphor for the natural progression of life, and in particular of sexual awakening - a subject central to many of the discussions of the Kristiania bohème of which Munch was a part. In this respect the painting echoes very much the underlying message of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Frühlings Erwachen (Spring's Awakening) - a work that, though unknown to Munch, was to be itself the source of another great scandal in Germany for precisely the same reason that Munch's art caused such furor. Addressing the subject of sex as a natural human impulse was, in repressive 19th Century Europe, a direct assault on the bourgeois moral order and tantamount to being a revolutionary act. In their hearts, both the bohemians and the State knew this, which was why Munch and Wedekind's psychologically probing Expressionist art proved so contentious.
'As such, art is one person's need to communicate something to another' Munch wrote, 'all means are equally good. In painting as in literature the means is often taken for the aim. Nature is not the aim. If one can obtain something by changing nature, it must be done. When you are in an emotional mood, a landscape will have a certain effect on you - by depicting this landscape you will recall your emotion. It is the emotion that is the main thing. Nature is just the means. Whether the painting looks like the nature in question is of no importance - it is impossible to explain a picture - the point is that it has been painted because there is no other way of explaining. You can just hint what you have been thinking of. I do not believe in art that has not been forced out from a human being's need to open up the heart. All art, literature as well as music, must be created by your life blood. Art is your life blood' (Edvard Munch, quoted in A. Eggum, ibid., p. 50).