The soul makes a thousand crossings

"Landscape with Flying Man
John Glenday

Encounter in Space
Edvard Munch

Shortly after my compelling experience at the Met Breuer’s show Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, I was lucky to stumble upon a small capsule exhibit at the National Gallery in DC called Edvard Munch: Color in Context. It featured a couple dozen prints, mostly lithographs with striking planes of color.

I remain a little leery of the exhibit’s unifying theme—that Munch, growing up at the end of the 19th Century, would have been exposed to spiritualist theories of color, and that reading his work through the spiritualist lens affords it new meaning. (The spiritualists, drawing on recent advances in physics and optical science, believed in auras. They linked specific psychic traits to different colors. Apparently, Munch’s childhood vicar was a spiritualist, and many of his contemporaries drew on spiritualist symbolism in their work.)

I’m sure there’s merit in this, and I don’t doubt that Munch’s exposure to spiritualism may have influenced his use of color. But the way the exhibit encouraged a paint-by-numbers interpretation of the works struck me as reductive. Many of the pieces are remarkable in their color choices not because of some encoded meaning (green signifies intellectualism, red denotes passion) but in the way color naturally creates contrast and resonance.

The piece that most thrillingly exemplifies this is Encounter in Space. In the print, created from a wooden block carved into three pieces, each inked in a different color, Munch depicts the crossing of two figures, male and female, against the backdrop of a cosmic void. Color is essential: by rendering the man and woman in red and blue-green, respectively, Munch lets us see them as physically close (even  overlapping), yet, at the same time, on completely different planes. They might as well be encountering each other in a dream.

Encounter in Space.jpg

Munch's Encounter in Space (1899)

It’s worth considering the ways this effect might have been lost. Had the work been executed entirely in black ink, or even in shades of gray, the dramatic contrast between the man and the woman wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Had Munch painted the scene by hand rather than stamping the color from a flat surface, the brushwork would soften its hard edges—the lithograph gives its figures a uniform flatness, an essential quality. The figures read almost as archetypes: Man and Woman. The blackness behind them is infinite and absolute.

I love the effect of suspended motion. It’s clear from the arc of the woman’s flowing hair that she’s not just lying prone; she is in flight, will soon be out of frame. The subtle kick of the man’s legs calls to mind a swimmer or diver. They meet at an oblique angle, such that even if they were to collide, their momentum would carry them in opposite directions.

Most readings of the piece emphasize the obvious sexuality of the figures. They’re nude, the woman lies open, posed like an odalisque, they are surrounded by floating sperm. I couldn’t help but notice that the man, with his sexy buttocks and pointed toes, is a dead ringer for the fish creature in The Shape of Water, our latest erotic icon.

Shape of Water.jpg

The Shape of Water (2017)

Thinking about Munch’s piece, I remembered a line from the poem “Landscape with Flying Man” that goes: “The soul makes a thousand crossings, the heart, just one.”

The poem describes Icarus falling from the sky, although its choice of the word “flying” in the title situates it before the fall. There’s something similar at play in Encounter in Space—we seem to be on the brink of tragedy and loss, but it hasn’t happened just yet. The opportunity is actively being missed before our eyes. The piece is electric, an eclipse captured before the planetary shadows fade and the world falls back into its lonely orbit for another thousand years.