In late 1982, on one of his daily amblings distributing copies of Interview magazine around Manhattan, Andy Warhol (1928 –1987) visited Galleri Bellman on 57th Street. The gallery had recently opened a show of 126 paintings and prints by Edvard Munch (1863–1944), including an impression of The Scream, the iconic 1895 lithograph on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo.
Warhol’s first immersive experience of the Norwegian master had came a decade earlier, on a 1971 visit to Oslo, when he spent time at the National Gallery and the Munch Museum. Surprised at how prolific Munch was as a printmaker, he professed at the time to being more impressed by his prints than his paintings.
Warhol returned to the Bellman exhibit several times, eventually securing a commission to paint what became known as the After Munch series: The Scream, Eva Mudocci and Self Portrait juxtaposed with Madonna. In 1983 five canvases of each — a total of 15 works — were commissioned.
‘Warhol came to this imagery as a function of his respect for Munch, not only as an artist, but as a printmaker,’ says Richard Lloyd, International Head of Prints and Multiples at Christie’s. ‘There’s a long tradition of artists being very invested in Munch’s creative output in this medium. He was not only incredibly prolific, he was also very technologically innovative and experimental, which is something Warhol really responded to.’
The following year, agreement was reached on a related project to create screenprinted versions of each of these motifs. The original idea was to issue 60 portfolios, each containing the three compositions. Warhol began work on the prints by ordering photographs and transparencies of the originals to be enlarged. These were then used as the basis of tracings, whereby he recreated the structure with bold graphite lines.
The Pop artist worked with master printer Rupert Jasen Smith, who used stencils to add blocks of colour, producing a series of unique colour versions (Warhol was to select the most successful colour combinations for the edition). The combinations were extremely varied, ranging from two colours to half a dozen or more, from sombre browns and blacks to neon pinks and lime greens. In some the figure is in sharp relief against a muted background; in others the figure is almost invisible, completely subsumed by the landscape.
Unfortunately, disagreements between the directors of Galleri Bellman meant the project was cancelled. The total number of unique Munch screenprints Andy Warhol produced is unknown, Lloyd says, but it is thought to be small.
‘Warhol was obsessed with questions of celebrity and image production. It’s only natural that he would want to take this iconic work and make it his own’ — Richard Lloyd
Intriguingly, Warhol’s development of the image was the reverse of Munch’s. The painted version of The Scream, with its swirling lines of colour, first appeared in 1893, while the lithographic version — which reduced this to a series of stark black lines — was published in 1895. What they have in common is the way in which colour was incorporated: Jasen Smith’s use of stencils closely mirrors Munch’s technique of cutting his woodblocks into sections and inking each in a different colour.
By the early 1980s, when the Munch prints were made, Warhol was widely recognised as a master of the medium. He had famously executed his Soup Cans and Marilyns, and had begun to move on to more experimental things.
‘What's so interesting about these Munch prints,’ says Lloyd, and what links them to his earlier work, ‘is that it's another image like the Soup Can; one that everybody knows. The Scream is one of the most well-known works in 20th-century art, if not the art historical canon, period. For that reason it's a perfect fit for Warhol, who was obsessed with questions of celebrity and image production. It’s only natural that he would want to take it and make it his own. I think that knits very closely together with his practice as a printmaker and as an artist.’
Lloyd stresses that Warhol’s desire to reproduce an image by Munch, in particular, is equally significant. ‘They're two artists who are closely linked to the idea of experimenting. While that may not be something one initially thinks when you first come to know these artists, it is really their willingness to experiment that made them both so tremendously important in the history of printmaking.’
On 19 April, three of Warhol’s Munch screenprints will be offered in the Prints and Multiples Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York. In May, the relationship between Munch and Warhol will be the subject of an exhibition at the Munch Museum in Oslo.