This is a major show featuring more than 100 works by two artists who lived in different countries and never even met. Why have you done it?
Maite van Dijk: It seemed like a wild idea at first. It started at a Christie’s sale in New York seven years ago. A Munch and Van Gogh landscape were hanging close together. A colleague and I were discussing how many affinities there were.
In fact, one of the frequently asked questions on our visitor survey at the Van Gogh Museum is, ‘Where can I see The Scream?’ because they think Munch’s masterpiece is one of Van Gogh’s paintings and expected to see it in our collection.
Munch and Van Gogh are often mentioned alongside each other in art history because of the psychological intensity of their work, but we thought it could be explored in more depth.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Starry Night over the Rhône, 1888. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
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What was it about those two landscapes that made you compare them?
Both paintings had the same kind of spirituality and pantheistic approach to nature. In a way, nature replaced religion for Van Gogh. After having such a religious background and upbringing he found a new kind of spiritual focus. Most of his art is about the consolation that can be found in nature. I never thought about Munch’s art in that way. Munch too came from a very religious family.
Like everyone else I thought of his work in terms of anguish and anxiety, screams and horrible macabre subjects. Not many people are familiar with Munch’s work after the 1900 when he started to be inspired by nature again and very much followed Van Gogh’s example.
What is the essence of Munch’s art? It goes first to the heart and then to the head
Was Munch consciously copying Van Gogh’s style?
We’ve done a lot of new research in this area to suggest that the overlaps between the artists are much more profound than we first suspected. We found in Munch’s writings a very telling line about Van Gogh: ‘I have thought, and wished — in the long term, with more money at my disposal than he had — to follow in his footsteps.’ It’s one of the few examples of an artist of that time admitting the influence of another artist.
But our research suggests Munch was very deeply influenced by Van Gogh on a technical and compositional level too. We know he visited several exhibitions where Van Gogh’s work was shown, and we’ve done quite a bit of research to find out which works he might have seen and when.
Sometimes the motifs and the composition is so closely connected that it’s very hard to ignore Van Gogh’s presence. Of course, he didn’t admit that anywhere, but we think he really looked very consciously at Van Gogh’s paintings, yes.
Edvard Munch (1863-1994), Starry Night, 1922-1924. Munch Museum, Oslo
Are there any other artists you could compare with Van Gogh in this way?
No. Not at this level. It’s a very broad exhibition looking at everything from the techniques of the artists to their motivations, use of colour, biography, and even the extensive writings left by both Van Gogh and Munch. It’s been extraordinary to see just how many different levels we could find similarities.
Vincent van Gogh (1853 — 1890), Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1887-1888. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Stichting / Foundation)
What has been the biggest surprise for you in terms of similarities thrown up by the new research?
On a fundamental — even abstract — level, it’s how they both approach art and think about their practice. In the lead up to the show, we’ve had frequent get-togethers with the curatorial team at the Munch Museum in Oslo. I asked one of my colleagues at the Munch Museum, what is the essence of Munch’s art? He said, ‘Well, it goes first to the heart and then to the head.’
You could say that about Van Gogh as well. It sounds almost trivial to say, but they wanted to communicate the way they felt, the complexity of difficulty of emotions, and to a very wide public. They work in a radical, complex way but achieve it by making these very striking but easy-to-understand pictures. Everyone standing in front of one of their paintings will be moved by what they see.
Edvard Munch (1863-1994), Self-Portrait with Palette, 1926. Private collection, Norway
Both Munch and Van Gogh have become clichés in a way. We hope people will have a fresh look at their paintings, including the masterpieces they think they know already.
Munch: Van Gogh recently opened the recently revamped Van Gogh Museum’s new Exhibition Wing, marking 125 years since the artist’s death in 1980, and runs until 17 January 2016
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