Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Gallery Chronicle

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Gallery Chronicle

Article excerpt

A NORWEGIAN MERMAID, confrontational American glass, small, potent abstractions by a Scot who lives in London and large exuberant ones by an American who lives in Paris, a disturbing vision by an Iranian in exile, zingy images of a skewed world by a young painter from Fairbanks, Alaska. All of this on view last season made the short days of winter seem less oppressive than usual.

The mermaid, Edvard Munch's vision of a bare-breasted woman-fish, heaving herself out of a moonlit sea, was to be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This little-known but important work was Munch's first decorative panel, painted during his 1896 sojourn in Paris for a Norwegian patron. In some ways, Mermaid sums up Munch's career, inaugurating the decorative schemes that would be a large part of his practice and embodying some of his most persistent motifs, including the sensuous woman with flowing red hair, the phallic emblem of the full moon and its reflection, the isolated tree trunk, and the emotionally charged seaside landscape. And Mermaid's ambiguous creature, eerie light, moody tonalities, and sense of infinite space and isolation combine to make the painting not only a typical Munch, but a very good one.

This past fall, the Philadelphia Museum mounted a small exhibition to set their relatively new painting-acquired in 2003-in the context of Munch's evolution, particularly during the time he painted the picture. The show was sharply focused, full of familiar and unfamiliar works, and richly informative. A selection of drawings, watercolors, and woodcuts (which Munch first began to make about 1896), plus a few canvases traced the various permutations and combinations of Mermaid's seductive female, dramatic moonlight, and rocky seashore in Munch's imagination, with ample attention paid to the rejected male, absent in the Philadelphia picture, but perhaps implied. The accumulation of evidence reinforced Mermaid's importance as a revealing encapsulation of its author's most passionate concerns and near-obsessive images, but what was perhaps more interesting, seeing Mermaid among so many of her close relatives made the artist's signature undulating rhythms seem less a stylish legacy of Art Nouveau than a way of diagramming and signaling feeling.

The very shape of the painting came under review. Designed to fit high up under the roof of a wooden house in Lysaker, Norway, Mermaid was originally an extended trapezoid, with the rocky shoreline filling the narrow corners. In 1938, the oddly shaped picture was detached from its architectural setting, and the extended corners were cut off, flipped, and reattached to the truncated trapezoidal image of the mermaid, narrowing the horizon and turning the once elongated picture into a conventional rectangle; the canvas was then overpainted, to make the now inverted, dislocated rocks into neutral background. Munch, who had six more years to live when this patchwork operation was undertaken, is believed to have known about it, but whether he approved or not, the effect was not only to transform an architectural decoration into an easel painting, but also to alter the space of the picture radically. A suggestive restoration in the Philadelphia installation (and an interesting chapter in the small publication accompanying the show) reminded us of what the artist originally intended, further enriching the mix.

The confrontational American glass was to be found in "Christopher Wilmarth: Sculpture and Drawings," at Betty Cuningham Gallery, a miniature retrospective spanning most of the artist's brief career, from works made between 1971, when he was twenty-eight, through 1987, the year of his death. Wilmarth's use of glass established-and sustains-his reputation, but he always insisted upon the seamless relationship of everything he did, and to honor his declared preference, the show included works in a variety of materials. In addition to a group of glass and metal constructions, both wall-hung and freestanding, there were works on paper ranging from watercolors and drawings so delicate that it seemed as if their images would vanish if you looked away, to robust, dragged pictures made with glue and gesso. …

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