A group of women in long white gowns gather together on a vibrantly painted pink bridge. They wear stylish hats typical of the period and seem to be in deep discussion. Nearby are other passersby: two men in conversation nearby and another lone man farther off, who peers over at the water below in contemplation.
Painted with an explosion of colourful and expressionist brushstrokes, at first glance many would have a hard time associating this painting to Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist who famously painted The Scream (1893), a work that has come to symbolize modern life at the pinnacle of change at the turn of the 20th-century. Here, in The Women on the Bridge (1934-40), is a more subdued scene depicting the simple pleasures of life. While Munch specialists will be familiar with the artist’s expressionistic depiction, such a burst of colour and life will come as surprise to many as will the current location of the work: Dahran, Saudi Arabia.
Edvard Munch's Lithographic version of 1893 version of The Scream. Courtesy of Ithra
Yet this isn’t the first work you see as you enter Edvard Munch: Landscapes of the Soul at Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dahran, Saudi Arabia. There it is, The Scream, one of several lithographs of the 1893 masterpiece (apparently, the two painted versions seldom leave Oslo’s Munch Museum). Beholding this work now resonates as much as it did over a century prior: the figure’s state of despair, with his hands over his ears, is one that couldn’t capture the current sentiment of today’s world. Its presence in Saudi Arabia signifies perhaps an equally common cry from another side of the world. It also signifies the Kingdom’s desire to do art and in a serious way.
After this first encounter, the exhibition then proceeds most gloriously through five pavilions or rather, five chapters entitled appropriately: Melancholy, Love, Despair, Loneliness and Portraits of the Soul. The show features an impressive display of 40 works from different stages of the Norwegian Expressionist’s life (1863-1944) and is done through a collaboration between Ithra and the Munch Museum in Oslo. Curated by Farah Abushullaih and designed by architectural firm Snøhetta, also responsible for the completion of Ithra, the show additionally marks the first exhibition by a Western figurative artist in Saudi Arabia to date.
It unfolds in Ithra’s Great Hall, its jewel-like 13 meter-tall multipurpose space. The five, asymmetrically formed pavilions reference the style of Norwegian cottages, comprising sharp angles in great contrast to the organic and smooth lines of the space they inhabit. Due to some of the artwork’s sensitivity to light, some pavilions incorporate an elegant yet complex lighting system that emanates rays inside from a circular opening in the ceiling akin to the manner of natural light.
An installation view of Landscapes of the Soul at Ithra in Dahran, Saudi Arabia
At center stage is Munch’s portrayal of his inner world, his emotions. His subjective understanding of the world is revealed through much of the exhibition. At the entrance to the Love pavilion is a quote by the artist: “My art is a confession—through it I seek to clarify to myself my relationship to the world. In other words, a form of egoism—through I have always simultaneously thought and felt that my art might also clarify [matters] to others in their pursuit of truth.”
While aptly devised according to the human emotion Munch sought to render, artworks in each pavilion carry a myriad of meanings. Yes, there is despair and melancholy in the Love pavilion as there are also rays of happiness in the Despair pavilion where The Women on the Bridge (1934-40) can be found. While the latter seems to be at first joyous depiction, the forlorn men challenge what we might consider to be happiness. Emotions are multilayered and complex as Munch teaches us.
Women On the Bridge. ca 1935. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Ithra
In the Portraits of the Soul, the first pavilion, a selection of the artist’s renowned self-portraits can be found displayed with an earlier lithographic version of The Scream. Here, Munch can be found young and happy as well as old and weak. Each portrait, regardless of when it was made, depicts the artist’s deep introspection. The Melancholy pavilion features iconic perspectives of Åsgårdstrand, the Norwegian town where Munch spent many of his summers. Of particular note is The Bohemian Wedding (1925) in the Despair pavilion.
One of Munch’s most acclaimed works, the expressionist painting depicts all guests in a state of misery and, if you look closely, there seems to be what has been attributed as a self-portrait of the artist standing on the far left. And then there’s Loneliness, the final pavilion, which concludes the show with a grouping of the artist’s self-inflicted solitude in his old age. Still, there’s touches of life here. There’s joy in bits of colour, expressionistic splashes of paint and the fervent renderings of Munch’s own face.
Conflicted yes, but not without a determination to live and that is what comes to fruition in this revolutionary exhibition: Munch’s heightened expressionism paints the complex layers of human emotion. Happiness and love cannot be had without melancholy and despair. These are all lessons that the soul learns even as it sometimes screams through time.
The exhibition runs until 3 September. www.ithra.com