Edvard Munch and New Ways of Seeing

Edvard Munch, Seated Nude, 1902. Pastel on paperboard,

 Edvard Munch, Seated Nude, 1902. Pastel on paperboard, 49.9 x 65.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

A pioneer of modern art best known for his iconic painting The Scream (1893), Norwegian artist Edvard Munch declared in his 1889 “Saint-Cloud Manifesto”: “No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.” These words come to life in his pastel Seated Nude, an exciting new addition to the National Gallery of Canada’s Prints and Drawings collection. This dynamic work is not simply a study of the female body – it is a vision of a real, living woman. In a strikingly direct way, it confronts us with politics of love and sexual desire, exploring innermost human emotions and fundamental experiences with Munch’s signature psychological immediacy.

Edvard Munch, Sketch of a Head, 1902, verso of Nude Seated

Edvard Munch, Sketch of a Head, 1902, verso of Seated Nude. Photo: NGC

Munch depicts a dark-haired, large-breasted nude, her eyes fixed in an almost electrifying stare as she tilts her body towards us, inviting our participation. Despite her relaxed manner, there is a certain confident prowess to this figure, a feature further amplified in a related painting in Hanover’s Sprengel Museum, titled Seated Nude (also known as The Beast), in which the woman exudes an almost predatory air. And yet, in both works, Munch manages to depict an overtly sexual woman without lapsing into pornography or objectification. This model is no longer the passive object of a viewer’s gaze – she is a woman with dignity and power, arousing desire without being deprived of her subjectivity or own free will.

Edvard Munch, Seated Nude (also known as The Beast), 1902. Oil on canvas

Edvard Munch, Semi-Nude Female (The Beast), 1902. Oil on canvas, 94.5 x 63.5 cm. Sprengel Museum, Hanover (KA 18,1965) Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Sprengel Museum / Michael Herling / Aline Gwose / Art Resource, NY

There is a remarkable fluidity and energy to this drawing. One can see and feel the hand of the artist at work. White and peach are used to demarcate the fullness of the woman’s body, gently accentuating her soft curves, while the multicoloured background suggests an intimate interior. Although in one sense the sitter and her space seem to blend together as one – the details of her hair merging with the brown marks behind her – the agitated patterning of the room contrasts with the weight of her full figure and creates a geometry of sorts that both frames her and adds vibrancy to the scene. This oscillation between body and space, figure and ground is one of the noteworthy achievements of modernism.

Edvard Munch, Seated Nude (detail), 1902. Pastel on paperboard

Edvard Munch, Seated Nude (detail), 1902. Photo: NGC

Seated Nude was produced in 1902, a year that marked a significant turning point both in Munch’s artistic development and personal life. It was at the Berlin Secession in the spring of 1902 that he exhibited a frieze of 22 paintings on the themes of love, angst and death, later identified as The Frieze of Life. This included such seminal works as The Scream (1893), Madonna (1894–95) and Vampire (1893–95). In the fall of 1902, Munch’s turbulent relationship with Tulla Larsen, the daughter of a prosperous Norwegian wine merchant, came to a traumatic end, resulting in his being shot in the hand and inaugurating a period of intense psychological turmoil for the artist.

It was thus amidst this period of intense artistic activity and emotional tumult that Seated Nude was created. While Munch had been depicting nude female models for some time (a conservative taboo of the day), Seated Nude and its related painting, among others made around the same time, signalled the emergence of the nude as an autonomous genre in his work. This later prompted Norwegian art historian and prominent museum director Jens Thiis to conclude that Munch “is the only great painter of the female nude that we have in the history of Norwegian art.”

Edvard Munch's Exhibition at Blomqvist, Kristiania. Photo by Edvard Munch, 1902

Edvard Munch's exhibition at Blomqvist, Kristiania, phtographed by the artist, 1902, Kollodion, Munchmuseet, Oslo, ref. MM.F.00012. Photo: Munchmuseet. Licensed through CC BY 4.0   https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode

Although this pastel may at first appear to be a rough preparatory sketch, Munch exhibited it in 1902 as a stand-alone work at the Blomqvist Gallery in Kristiania (now Oslo). It can be seen, along with the Seated Nude painting, in an installation photograph taken by the artist himself. That Munch ascribed importance to these works is further evidenced by his inclusion of the Seated Nude painting at the renowned 1912 Sonderbund exhibition at Cologne, which supplied a breathtaking review of early modern art, with a special focus on Munch’s work.

This pastel comes to the National Gallery of Canada from a private Canadian collection. Originally acquired in 1928 in Germany, it was brought to Canada when the family fled Nazi persecution and has remained in their collection ever since – we are most grateful to the family for facilitating this acquisition. Seated Nude is one of the first drawings – if not the first – by Munch to enter a Canadian public collection, and joins two impressive paintings by the artist on long-term loan.


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