Nov 192007

The author of the monograph I own on Munch, David Loshak, puts a lot of weight into psychoanalytical interpretation of the Norwegian artist’s work. For instance, he suggests that The Sun, as well as the star’s manifestation in “The Dance of Life” function as a phallic image; he interprets the tree and its reflection in the water in the Girls on the Bridge in the same vein.

I would like to contend the entire trend of psychoanalytical interpretation of visual artwork, since it was instituted by Sigmund Freud in his analysis of da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne. Psychoanalysis has been proven to contain massive inaccuracies, but somehow still persists in the humanities — I think that the temptation of an easily accessible paradigm, a ready-made template for the purpose of deriving meaning, is hard to resist. Instead of developing original frameworks, scholars seek to adhere to a popular but obsolete theory.

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The Girls On The Pier, 1901
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There is enough substance in this painting to examine and analyze without resorting to Dr. Freud’s equivocal postulates. A group of three (or four) girls stands on a bridge, the young women gazing into the lake, studying the reflections caught on the surface. The water serves as a mirror, looking into which may mean a search for knowledge and understanding — a known motif in Western art. Consequently, the tree near the shore may represent the one of knowledge, which, in its biblical connotation, may also refer to sexual intercourse.

Thus, though we eventually arrive to an interpretation that withholds some erotic meaning, the route taken relies on common iconography rather then abstruse psychoanalytic guess-work (and I would stress the difference). Additionally, Munch was known to study the complexities of the attraction between the sexes, as such works as Vampire and the Kiss demonstrate. It was an important theme in his oeuvre.

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The road and the landscape begin to swirl (a technique Munch employs in the Scream, and Madonna as well) towards the vanishing point, acting as vehicles for expression of inner emotional experiences — be they of the girls or of the viewers. While in the Scream the distortion suggests anxiety and fear, and in Madonna supernatural intervention, here it is more subtle and relaxed, implying nostalgia, bittersweet farewell to the innocent past, and a hesitant, tentative welcome to the unknown future of adulthood and mature life. Both the distorted bridge and the backs of the girls imply departure, moving away, in space as well as in time.

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Nostalgia is often in the danger of slipping into sentimentalism, but the palette secures Munch from such excesses. There is something nobly hardy, and Nordic in his restraint in choice of colors, all earthly and oblique, however saturated and bright. Even the bright yellows and reds are toned down, as if anchored and inhibited by shallow Scandinavian light. Still, the warmer hues retain their primal zest — and important condition for generating a sense of elegiac sadness via contrast with the bleak weather and surroundings.

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Similar to his Madonna, Edvard Munch went on to explore the theme of several girls standing on a long elevation above water, creating several versions of the painting, including woodcuts and lithographs. By varying the colors, the number of the protagonists, and their disposition, he mines the basic psychological framework, unearthing shades of moods, some notably brighter than others. Some of the most powerful pieces dress the ladies in red and white, suggesting the process of erotic awakening and awareness, much like in the energetic Dance of Life.

*this article has been edited at a later date

  One Response to “Edvard Munch: Girls on the Pier”

  1. Thank you for a characterization of phsychoanalytic criticism as “lazy and bad practice”. While I myself cannot resist noticing that there are three girls, and that they are suspended in an egoic position between upper and lower levels, and that the vegetable mound obscures (conscious) structures above and below and etc, I am fully aware that this is all in good Fun. Having some background in “real science” before studying humanities, I have no patience with those who would promote a Fun critical theory as anything remotely scientific. Frivolous efforts at pseudo-scientific authorization take much of the Fun out of what should be a harmless exercise for students. But worse, there are those who would embelish Freudian Fun not only with childish pseudo-scientific, but with dangerous pseudo-medical authorization, and who would take harmless exercises in application of critical theory to the level of police-state tools for the labeling of perfectly sane citizens. Freud is Fun…but only for the harmless humanities.

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