While the world is aghast at the theft of the two masterpieces, Munch was not merely dismissed but reviled when he actually produced the two paintings. Although "The Scream" (1893) has become by far the more famous of the two works and was even stolen once before, "The Madonna" (1894) is actually the more interesting painting.
Despite its holy title, "The Madonna" features a naked woman with an eerily corpselike smile, striking a classic erotic pose. One hand is behind her head, which is coquettishly tilted to the side, while the other hand is behind the small of her back. Her snaky black hair cascades onto her shoulders. Like all images of the Madonna, this one has a halo, but it is red -- as red as the blood in Munch's portrait of a female vampire at work, as red as the blood that pounds in the groin when we are in the throes of lust.
When "The Madonna" was shown in Norway in 1895, Munch received this typical review from the daily Aftenposten:
"He seems either to be someone who's hallucinating about art or he is some kind of joker who thinks the public a fool and makes a lie of both art and life. Even though these caricatures are laughable, the worst is that such disgusting lies are being perpetrated -- which makes one quite ill and tempted to call the police."
Now, instead of calling the police to remove the painting, we're calling them to recover it.
Munch's "Madonna" prefigures what was to become canonical in psychoanalysis as it was being conceived at the time by Freud: that the erotic and death have a close relationship to one another. The French succinctly express this idea in their description of orgasm as "the little death." And Munch in fact wrote about orgasm in his journal at the time of the painting of "The Madonna":
"The pause as all the world stops in its path. Moonlight glides over your face filled with all earth's beauty and pain. Your lips are like two ruby-eyed serpents and are filled with blood, like your crimson red fruit. They glide from one another as if in pain. The smile of a corpse. Thus, new life reaches out its hand to death. The chain is forged that binds the thousands of generations that have died to the thousands of generations to come."
This theme obsessed Munch, whose mother and sister both died of tuberculosis when he was young, and he reworked the image of "The Madonna" in a series of lithographs during the next few years. In these, the relationship of death and sex becomes even more explicit. The Madonna becomes more morbid looking, armless. A stream of sperm swims around the margins of the best-known lithograph. In the lower left corner is a tiny figure that appears to be a fetus, its skeletal arms crossed in front of itself. The Christ child becomes a fetus and the Virgin becomes a goddess of sensuality.
Munch's work teaches a couple of lessons that seem to be forgotten and sometimes relearned every generation. First, art is capable of expressing truth in a powerfully sensate way that the articulation of ideas cannot. We need to understand that our almost visceral response in the face of this is to condemn the art rather than face the truth. In the late '80s, we saw that with Andre Serrano, who photographed a crucifix submerged in urine, "Piss Christ" (1989). Robert Mapplethorpe's pictures of sadomasochistic sex also created a storm of controversy. Both artists were reviled like Munch for depicting the sacred or the taboo in the most basic terms of the body.
Munch's work also teaches us that beauty is often present exactly where suffering is present. Perhaps this is the truth that most of us can't face. The painting of "The Madonna" is at once repellant and beautiful, and living with that tension generally is almost unbearable at times. It reminds me of the Buddha's caution that life is suffering and that this must be appreciated if we are to find meaning and beauty in life. Ultimately, such an attitude means that we must understand that the very things we often call pathological about ourselves are the same things that give our lives meaning. Munch put it this way:
"My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm ... . Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm's edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness, I would have been like a ship without a rudder."
Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at email@example.com.
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