Conceived in Berlin between 1893 and 1894, Edvard Munch's Madonna stands at the crossroads between the symbolist art of the late nineteenth century and the modernism of the early twentieth century. The image was the culmination of a series of five painted versions executed by Munch between 1893 and 1895.
One of the first written references to the subject came from Munch's friend and critic, Stanislaw Przybyszewski who described a painting exhibited in 1894 as ' ...a robed Madonna lies on a crumpled sheet, with the halo of the future martyrdom of birth... the mystery of eternal procreation fills the woman's face with a radiant ecstasy.'
(W. Timm, The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch, Greenwich, 1969, p. 53).
As Przybyszewski suggests, the image depicts the act of conception, clearly denoted by the border motif featuring sperm and a contorted ghoulish foetus. This printed border replicates the frame created by the artist for one version of the painting exhibited on two occasions in 1895 and later discarded. It connects important archetypal themes that recur in Munch's art: life and death, desire and fear, holiness and carnality.
Munch's intent was to represent 'Woman' from the point of view of her lover at the moment she conceives a new life within. Munch described that precise moment as being when 'life and death join hands'. When a woman stands at the gateway between life and death she reaches her apotheosis and she is then at her most desirable, her most majestic and her most fearful. In the artist's own words:
'The pause when all the world stayed its course, your face holds all the beauty of this earth, your lips carmine as the ripening fruit move apart as in pain, the smile of a corpse now gives its hand to death, the chain is completed which binds the thousand generations that are dead to the thousand generations that are to come.' (Edvard Munch, quoted in S.G. Epstein, The Prints of Edvard Munch: Mirror of his Life, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1983, pp. 52-3).
The painted versions were known by various titles and the lithograph only gradually became known as Madonna - Leibendes Weib. It is interesting to note that the present impression has Monna inscribed just inside the lower sheet edge. According to Magne Bruteig, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Munch Museum, this is an alternative title and was a response to the storm of protest the work provoked in polite Scandinavian society. Munch hoped that a rather less disturbing title would diffuse the controversy.
In addition to its pictorial complexity, Madonna is also a technical achievement of the highest order. Originally conceived in black only, Munch experimented with colour, first adding red for the halo, then a blue background and finally a greenish jade tone for the bare torso. Each impression is essentially unique, and this example, printed on a large, very fine sheet of Japanese paper, is remarkably powerful example of his masterpiece.