That person cannot see my face
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed
Exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York City, November 15, 2017–February 4, 2018
Seeing Edvard Munch paintings in person can evoke deep emotions. There’s something about the scale, texture, and—especially—color that arrests the gaze. Even his landscapes hum with the feeling of being looked at. So I was a bit surprised when, on visiting the Met Breuer’s Munch exhibition last weekend, I found several of his subjects completely emotionally inaccessible.
Largely, these subjects were women. Munch’s self-portraits, in contrast, are reliably engaging: the viewer grasps his state of mind almost instantly. In a review of the Met’s exhibition, Peter Schjeldahl writes:
“Self-Portrait with Cigarette” (1895) is the show’s best representation of the echt Munch: the artist as an anxious dandy in a choking nocturnal atmosphere. That it is beautiful amazes, with aesthetic detachment tensed against naked emotion. You aren’t being shown what the artist was like. Rather, you effectively become him as you look.
That’s a fairly literal description of what we might call an empathic gaze. And it’s apt. The dimensions and viewing angle of the self-portrait evoke those of a mirror, as does the way the figure emerges from a dark, indefinite background, even the smudged, almost reflective quality of the color. And, of course, the eye contact that mirrors that of the observer.
Munch’s “Self Portrait With Cigarette” (1895)
Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
While some of Munch’s women address the viewer directly—often in defiance or reproach—many are looking elsewhere: into the distance, or, frequently, at men. Some of their faces are erased or obscured entirely. I was particularly drawn to the work depicting a nude model in a state of distress, her head in her hands.
At first glimpse, her emotional state seems clear: she’s upset. But when I asked myself why, I had trouble coming up with an answer. Or rather, the answers I was coming up with weren’t satisfying. She doesn’t want to be painted right now. Well, too late for that.
Munch's "Nude I" (1913)
I noticed—and this is even more evident in person—the exquisiteness of the colors against which the model is portrayed. The rich red of the bedspread, the chalky lavender splashed on the wall behind her. They’re almost aromatic. We can’t help but admire them, in the same way we can’t help but notice the comeliness of the model, her legs splayed, her hair cascading. She is, unquestionably, there to be looked at. It’s difficult to access a sense of empathy, largely because the cause of her distress remains opaque. The painting almost seems to say, Whatever she’s so upset about, she’ll get over it. But isn’t she beautiful anyway?
For the sake of argument, we can compare Munch’s nude to a painting with a similar composition, Dana Schutz’s Shame. Schutz depicts a woman, apparently nude, clutching her face and weeping.
Schutz's "Shame" (2017)
Unlike Munch, Schutz demands unqualified empathy for her subject. We may not know the cause of her shame, but we feel it deeply. Her plump, angular limbs are not particularly beautiful, and the clamoring greens and grim browns of the background reinforce, rather than question, her emotional state. The effect is abrasive and undeniable.
Munch’s subject, on the other hand, remains at arm’s length. I felt a creeping mist of despair while looking at her. The disconnect at the heart of the painting—we’ll never know what this woman was feeling, or why—called to mind a poem by Lucy Ives that’s concerned with being seen by another person, and at the same time not seen. Or rather, being seen but not known.
I have a face and a front of my face.
I have two shoulders and two hips.
So what can I do with my face if it can’t see that person’s face?
What do I tell my eyes to see?
How do I let them know that when they see that face it is that person’s wish that they not know it?
How do I tell them we have to go back into the world where no one knows us and we don’t know anyone?
The poem (called “Poem”) is itself a kind of self-portrait. The speaker effortfully separates her body from the idea of itself. It’s a sort of anti-empathy.
How do I tell my ears that when that person says my name it is only a word?
How do I tell my lips to make that person’s name another word so I can say it?
The poem observes how, when we hear someone (“that person”) say our name, we imagine they know us. And when we say their name, we imagine we know them. But it’s only imaginary.
That person cannot see my face.
Knows a woman with my name and she is a woman.
Does not know the word I hide behind my words.
Does not know this face.
Does not know this is my face.
Says my name and looks at this person.
It’s easy—maybe a bit too easy, but let’s roll with it—to relate the “looking” in this poem to the gaze exchanged between painter and subject, or viewer and painting. I can imagine Munch saying his model’s name and looking at “this person” we see in the painting, and, ultimately, not knowing her at all. He can paint her, but he cannot know her. Perhaps—let’s give him credit—Munch himself was aware of this. Maybe this is what the painting is showing us. The impossibility of knowing someone we see.
After writing the above, I turned to Google to find images of the paintings and discovered that Munch actually painted several versions of his weeping nude.
Munch's "Kneeling Female Nude" (1919)
In all the paintings, her face remains covered—this feels essential—but the position of her body changes, as do the colors that surround her. She remains, however, the object of a scrutinizing gaze. In one iteration, she lies on her side in a pose so common in female nude painting that it has its own term, “odalisque,” derived from a French word for a certain type of concubine.
Munch's "Reclining Nude" (1912)
Like many artists, Munch returned to the motifs that seem to confound him, to lie just outside his grasp. There’s The Scream, of course, in all its variations; the image of his dying sister; countless paintings of men and women kissing, embracing, or simply staring at each other. Munch’s revisiting of the weeping nude supports the notion that he still can’t figure this woman out. No matter how many times he paints her, her mind remains, irresistibly, out of reach.