A Painter of Mindscapes

Edvard Munch gave form to the angst and isolation that would darken the 20th century.

EDVARD MUNCH pictured, in his prints, states of mind and emotions, many of them as dark as an eclipse of the soul. His subjects were not so much the people of his native Norway, whom he showed against its inky forests, somber shorelines, and forbidding bridges, but the various forms of anguish and fear which cast shadows on people's lives. Anxiety, melancholy, loneliness, separation, along with jealousy, sexual obsession, and nightmares of illness and death are the recurring themes in ``Edvard Munch: Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection'' an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art here through Sept. 3.

Ninety-four of these sometimes grim but often exquisite works appear in the collection, whose Washington showing is the first stop on a two-year national tour with additional stops in Honolulu; Los Angeles; Miami; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Kan.; Atlanta; and Memphis, Tenn.

The Sarah G. Epstein and Lionel C. Epstein print collection is ``the largest and finest collection of Munch's graphic art outside Europe,'' says National Gallery director J. Carter Brown. At the press opening, Mr. Brown referred to the gallery's 1978 ``full-dress retrospective on Munch'' and said the current show explores ``a more focused but no less overwhelming aspect of Edvard Munch, because I think any of you who respond to art ... understand that very special emotional pressure and artistic genius of this extraordinary artist. What is particularly interesting is to isolate the graphic work because, great as he was as a painter, the graphics somehow represent the medium in which he excelled.''

Brown finds that analogies to Munch are ``more apt to be in the literary arts than in the visual arts. He was part of a whole new line of thinking - with Ibsen and Strindberg - of the psyche. And it is more than a coincidence, I think, that Sigmund Freud was coming to his discoveries at about the same time.''

Exploring the Munch exhibition, this writer thought again and again not of another painter but of the poetic, anguished American playwright Eugene O'Neill, whose characters mirror some of the same longings, obsessions, and angst that hover over Munch's prints.

Munch's ambivalently ecstatic ``Madonna'' series, for instance, has enough of Eve about it to suggest the dualism of several O'Neill women. The work of both men was affected by family nightmares: the O'Neill alcoholism and addiction and, in addition, the same fear of family illnesses viewed as hereditary. Both men also suffered from the early deaths of family members.

There are some stunningly beautiful works in this show, despite the gloom of many of the subjects. In a mystical color mezzotint and drypoint with graphic entitled ``The Lonely One,'' a young woman in a flowing white dress with her back to us and her long hair half tan, half yellow seems to be standing on gold-dappled, blue water at the shore. In ``The Kiss,'' a series of bold color woodcuts, the faces of a man and woman become one in an embrace. And in the double series ``To the Forest (1915 and 1897),'' a couple with backs turned to us and arms around each other walk into almost Gothic evergreens. There is also a sort of savage beauty about the woman with flowing auburn hair in ``Vampire'' who puts her arms around the bowed head of a man to sink her face into his neck.

Fascinating portraits of Munch's contemporaries are also included, such as ``Ibsen in the Cafe of the Grand Hotel, Kristinia'' and paintings of playwright August Strindberg and poet Stephane Mallarm'e. And, of course, there are self-portraits of Munch, one of them with a skeletal arm at the bottom. His famous, eerie lithgraph ``The Scream'' is also here.

``My former husband, Lionel,'' said Sarah Epstein at the press opening, ``thought of Munch's work as a collection of images that should be seen together as a frieze of life. This was a major reason we felt the collection should remain intact.'' She added, ``The prints are almost like children to me, and I will certainly go to see them in each of their new locations.'' Mrs. Epstein is author of the catalog's only essay, ``Living with Edvard Munch Images: A Collector in Three Stages,'' her highly personal account of the family collection.

Andrew Robison, the National Gallery's curator of prints and drawings, who selected the works shown here, quoted Munch as saying, ``We shall no longer paint knitting women seated in interiors, but ourselves,'' and ``My pictures are my diary.'' Mr. Robison also pointed out that Munch, like Freud, ``portrays ... the life of his inner self.'' Where To See The Munch Show

After closing Sept. 3 at Washington's National Gallery of Art, ``Edvard Munch: Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection'' will travel to:

The Honolulu Academy of Arts, Sept. 12-Oct. 28.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 22-Jan. 6, 1991.

The Center for the Fine Arts in Miami, Jan. 19, 1991-March 3.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art, March 23, 1991-May 5.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Kan., May 26, 1991-July 7.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Aug. 17, 1991-Nov. 10.

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., Nov. 30, 1991-Jan. 12, 1992.

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