Was Edvard Munch really crazy—or crazy like a fox? That’s the question asked in “Becoming Edvard Munch,” the exhibition now filling Regenstein Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago. There are more than fifty paintings and prints by the Norwegian master himself, mostly from his early career, the last decades of the nineteenth-century when he rose to fame, and still more by other artists of that period—a few notables by Monet, and even a rarely seen van Gogh from a collection in Israel. And most happily, there are dozens of pieces from the likes of Vilhelm Hammershoi (Denmark), Eilif Peterssen (Norway), and Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finland); obscure, perhaps, outside of Scandinavia, but masters worthy of that golden age of European painting. But the star of this show is Munch himself who, more than any of the others, makes us share the feelings of the figures in his scenes—whether they are lonely, sad, desperate, uncomfortable, jealous—or even, heaven forbid—happy. Munch’s style is thrilling because it is so economical. Nothing is overdone. Every stroke of the brush aims right to the heart of the matter, even as it carefully measures every size, space, color and tone. As he paints a feeling instead of a scene, his work anticipates the following sixty years of modern painting and print-making. Of course, there are the dark, moody pieces that we’ve come to expect from the master of “The Scream,” but there are also some surprisingly sunny, lighthearted views as well—so many highs and lows that it becomes difficult to disentangle his biography from the myths. Was his work expressing the heaps of tragedy in his personal life, or was his gloom and doom just a ploy to sell art back in the day when “crazy artist” was a marketable commodity (as it still is)? (Chris Miller)
Through April 26 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan.