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“Meditations on Mortality”: Illustrated Companion to My WSJ Review of Jasper Johns/Edvard Munch at VMFA

John Ravenal, curator of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond (and now executive director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA), set himself two prerequisites for undertaking the scholarly yet easy-to-love show—Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life (to Feb. 20)—that I reviewed for the online version of today’s Wall Street Journal: He had to get the Munch Museum in Oslo to part with key loans, and he needed Jasper Johns’ support. (I’ll say more in a subsequent post about why my review is online but not, regrettably, in the hardcopy of the newspaper.)

Ravenal succeeded in winning the Munch Museum’s cooperation by offering it the chance to debut the show—the first major presentation (which closed in September) of Johns’ works in Scandinavia. It ultimately contributed some 65 works to the exhibition, including numerous prints and several major paintings.

Ravenal was able to persuade Johns not only to agree to the project but also to lend many works from his extensive personal collection, answer many questions and dig out information from his archives. What was originally conceived as a small dossier display ballooned into a 120-work odyssey.

After spending years working on this rewarding exhibition and producing its well written and meticulously researched catalogue, Ravenal may have morphed to resemble the central figure in one of the show’s signature works. (Removing his tie and glasses, and buttoning his jacket might have clinched this comparison.)

Portrait of John Ravenal and Edvard Munch, between the clock and the bed.

Double portrait of John Ravenal and Edvard Munch with the clock and the bed.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum.

As a lure for the WSJ’s general-interest readers, I felt compelled to mention, near my the beginning of my review, that Munch was “best known for ‘The Scream.'” That universal symbol of angst was represented in the show by a print, not the painting.

"The Scream," Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“The Scream,” 1895, lithograph, Museum of Modern Art

Below is my illustrated companion for my WSJ article, with excerpts from my review in italics, and with additional commentary:

“Corpse and Mirror II” (1974-75) is a dazzling syncopation of complexly angled passages of red, yellow and blue parallel lines. The hatches on the right side are a mirror-image of the left, but more faint and blurry, evoking the degradation of images that are printed multiple times. The title invites us to regard this as metaphor for physical decay and death.

That interpretation of the “degradation” is mine, not the curator’s.

“Corpse and Mirror II” (1974-75) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Corpse and Mirror II,” 1974-75, Collection of Jasper Johns

Ravenal’s detailed  descriptions (in the wall labels) of the complex systems governing Johns’ crosshatches bring to mind the conceptual wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. When I asked about this, Ravenal agreed that LeWitt “was definitely looking at Johns, and looking at repetition and seriality in Johns” (the subject for another “Johns and…” show?).

There is no clearer clue to the Munch-Johns connection than the eerie red armprint along the bottom of Mr. Johns’s 1981 lithograph, “Savarin,” depicting a coffee can repurposed as a paintbrush container. “Signed” by Mr. Johns in the lower-right corner with Munch’s stenciled initials, this image alludes to the skeletal arm beneath an 1895 Munch lithograph, “Self-Portrait.”

“Savarin,” 1981, lithograph Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Johns, “Savarin,” 1981, lithograph, private collection

Munch, “Self-Portrait.” lithograph, 1895 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Munch, “Self-Portrait.” lithograph, 1895, Munch Museum

While there are numerous “Savarin” prints scattered throughout the show, the famous sculpture upon which those prints are based—Johns’ “Painted Bronze,” 1960—was conspicuous by its absence, although illustrated in the VMFA’s catalogue for the show.

Image of Johns, "Painted Bronze," TK, from catalogue for the VMFA's show

Image of Johns’ “Painted Bronze,” 1960, from catalogue for the VMFA’s show

Originally set to be dispatched to the VMFA by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (where it had been on long-term loan from Johns), it was sold by the artist to Henry and Marie-Josée Kravis as a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art (where Mrs. Kravis is president) and was unavailable for loan.

The climactic central gallery unites for the first time ever three monumental, separately owned Johns paintings, all titled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” with the Munch that inspired them—his “Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-43), one of many important loans to the show from Oslo’s Munch Museum. Near death, Munch depicts himself stranded between a faceless grandfather clock and the bed where he may soon expire.

In the VMFA’s installation, the actual bedspread, found by Mr. Ravenal in the Munch Museum’s storage facility, bedecks a bed beside Munch’s painting of it.

Munch's bedspread, Munch Museum

Munch’s bedspread, Munch Museum

Close acquaintance with the last of Mr. Johns’s clock-and-bed paintings (1982-83), owned by the VMFA, inspired Mr. Ravenal to search for visual evidence of Munch’s influence. In the lower-right corner of each of Mr. Johns’s three crosshatched renditions, the bedspread’s angled red-and-black stripes are suggested by marks that are more delicate and feathery than the paintings’ otherwise broad brushstrokes.

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1982-83, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1982-83, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Less obvious is a crosshatched evocation of the standing Munch in the luminous orange passage at the center of the two non-VMFA examples, detected by Mr. Ravenal and other scholars.

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 19TK, Museum of Modern Art

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1981, Museum of Modern Art

Although I didn’t mention this in my article, I saw the standing figure of Munch in a different place: To me, the shifting tonalities of four vertical fields in Johns’ paintings clearly echo, from left to right, the tonalities of Munch’s very dark grandfather clock; his somberly clothed figure; the bright yellow-and-orange passage depicting a wall hung with pictures; and the striped bed, behind which is an open closet and a ghostly image of an elongated, nude.

Reasonable curators and critics can disagree, but to me, the correspondences seemed clear as I looked back and forth between Johns’ paintings and this one:

Munch, “Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1940-43, Munch Museum

Munch, “Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed,” 1940-43, Munch Museum

The same vertical bands of tonalities are seen in the third clock-and-bed painting by Johns, owned by the artist:

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 19TK, TK

Johns, “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1981, Collection of Jasper Johns

According to Mr. Ravenal’s label, the light rectangle in the upper right of the painting retained by Johns refers to another of his paintings (also in the VMFA’s show), “Usuyuki.” That title, according to that painting’s label, refers to “a Kabuki play about the melancholy relationship between an aging man and a beautiful young geisha he desires but cannot possess.”

Even in the VMFA’s dark-hued clock-and-bed painting, with its more subtle gradations of tonality, I perceived the figure as standing to the left of the central brighter passage. What I took to be the figure’s head is at the top center of the detail below, with body and arms beneath:


The show’s final galleries, exploring his 1980s return to representation, reveal how Munch’s example helped free Mr. Johns to express his deepest fears and forebodings in the era of the AIDS crisis….Echoes of Munch are again unmistakable: In Munch’s grief-laden “Inheritance” (1897-99), an emaciated baby with spotted skin lies limp in the lap of the mournful mother from whom the child “inherited” syphilis.

The painting’s label tells us that this painting “addressed [Munch’s] fears about the physical and mental illness in his own family.”

Munch, "Inheritance," 1897-99. Munch Museum

Munch, “Inheritance,” 1897-99, Munch Museum

In the same gallery, Mr. Johns’s “Perilous Night” (1982) includes three sculptural casts of disembodied forearms with blotchy skin that (according to the wall label) have “been linked…to symptoms of AIDS.” Both paintings refer to sexually transmitted disease and incorporate images of handkerchiefs—symbols of mourning.

Johns, "Perilous Night," 1982, TK

Johns, “Perilous Night,” 1982, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The painting’s title refers to a John Cage score of that name, which the composer, Johns’ friend, said was about “the loneliness and terror that come to one when love becomes unhappy,” as the label tells us. The left side is occupied by an illegibly darkened detail from the “Resurrection” panel of Matthias Grünewald‘s Isenheim Altarpiece.

In the show’s profoundly moving coda, Mr. Johns’s four-canvas “The Seasons” (1985-86) hangs directly opposite a harrowing self-portrait of Munch near death—head misshapen, eyes sunken, with his own shadow (analogous to Mr. Johns’s shadowy presence in “The Seasons”) lurking behind him.


Munch, “Self-Portrait,” 1940-43, Munch Museum

In the quasi-cinematic progression of “The Seasons,” a gray tracing of Mr. Johns’s own shape (the closest he comes to a self-portrait) looms ghostlike in each panel, while his surroundings, including details from his own artworks, scatter and shatter from order to chaos with the passage of his life’s seasons.

Johns, "The Seasons," 1985-86 L to R: "Spring," TK; "Summer," TK, "Fall," TK, "Winter," TK

Johns, “The Seasons,” 1985-86
L to R: “Spring,” 1986, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection; “Summer,” 1985, Museum of Modern Art; “Fall,” 1986, Collection of Jasper Johns; “Winter,” 1986, private collection

The tragedy of these mournful, elegiac paintings is that they’ve been dispersed among four owners. This poignant progression of what should be experienced as one continuous work makes it one of the most powerful meditations on aging and mortality that I’ve encountered in a museum. If for no other reason, this show is a must-see for the rare opportunity to experience “The Seasons” in full.

At the end of my far-ranging conversation with Ravenal about his show, I asked him about Johns’ current work. He answered visually—by showing me a photo of the two of them in the artist’s studio. In the background was a large painting turned to the wall, off-limits to curious visitors, just like the concealed work-in-progress depicted at the bottom of this Johns-owned painting in the VMFA’s show:

Johns, "TK," 19TK, TK

Johns, “In the Studio,” 1982, Collection of Jasper Johns

The VMFA’s revealing and riveting exploration of only about a decade in Johns’ long, varied career whets our appetites for the full-blown Johns retrospective planned for the fall of 2020 (a 90th-birthday celebration?), organized jointly by the Whitney Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Co-curators are the Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf and the PMA’s Carlos Basualdo. MoMA’s legendary Kirk Varnedoe set them a high bar, but that was (can you believe it?) two decades ago.

Closer at hand: the April publication of a five-volume catalogue raisonné of the artist’s paintings and sculpture.

an ArtsJournal blog