Nature is a club of which we are all members. Its nonexclusivity is appalling: How much more would we savor our belonging if a spot on the roster had to be earned, flanked by references, or conferred by birth? Instead, there is absolutely no one to lord it over, unless we count our moment’s trendy and belabored fascination with the uncanniness of computer intelligence. AI discourse, when it tiptoes toward the aesthetic question of what the “real” or the “natural” feels like, provides us with someone or something to exclude from our clique of nearly eight billion who have naturally occurring consciousness, tastes, and proclivities that extend beyond our species’ yen for computation. We are not that, we get to say. We are of smug and beautiful limitation, not overly programmed, our lumpy imperfections what make us heirloom varieties. What it means to be natural is maddeningly undefined: We know it when we see it, we tell ourselves, but this definition-by-reaction means it’s never quite solid. Another appraisal may always be lying in wait.
I say this in part to let myself off the hook. Natural birth; natural approaches to a baby’s sleep, nutritional needs or clothing and toy materials; allowing my productivity or pace of life to vary naturally in response to seasonal flux in daylight, my endogenous hormones, the weather, phases of the moon, or patterns in the stars—in all of these things I have been a selective, pigheaded, and ultimately wayward student. This past summer I tried in my bumbling way to manufacture a natural experience for myself, my husband, and my baby. We rented a house in the countryside using a platform that sometimes displaces longtime residents from the communities where they would otherwise (naturally) prefer to reside. We used about a barrel of gasoline to leave our city home and get to farmstands, restaurants, and a burger diner whose source cows, we were told, were all treated like family.
The next day, we saw some paintings by Edvard Munch of our predicament refracted through the eye of genius. Munch was the focus of an enormous and gorgeous retrospective that touched down in America at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before being shown in Potsdam, Germany, where it currently sits, before heading on to Oslo, Norway, in the spring. This exhibition, titled Trembling Earth and glossed by curators and reviewers as a showcase of Munch’s landscapes, in fact has a number of works that study how people try, with a range of outcomes, to engage authentically—naturally—with flora, fauna, land, and sea.
Edvard Munch was born in Norway in 1863, the same year as the famous inaugural “Salon des Refusés,” where artworks rejected by the jury of the Paris Salon—including paintings by Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Gustave Courbet, and others—were put on view, garnering the typically mixed reception of the then-avant garde and paving the way for the defiantly separatist group shows of like-minded anti-academicians who would come to be dubbed Impressionists. By the time Munch entered art school in his late teens and began regularly exhibiting work in his twenties, the Impressionist interest in the empirical facts of color, light, and form for recording optical perception had been thoroughly metabolized around Europe, and Munch was one of many hungering to deploy this technical language to more metaphysical ends.
Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream (1893), though it’s been chewed up in the jaws of mass replication to the point of becoming a savorless pulp, contains just this blend of the journalistic, documentarian impulse and the groping for the ineffable. On the one hand, we have a specific and identifiable place in Oslo, which some critics have located near a slaughterhouse and mental hospital, perhaps placing the pedestrian near all kinds of natural and unnatural suffering. On the other hand, of course, we have a world that appears to melt and collapse on itself as though it’s been thrust into a furnace. Munch reworked The Scream in a number of paintings and prints, but I was grateful, in this new exhibition, to only encounter one modest lithograph from the series so that I could see a different, more capacious artistic consciousness than the one that’s been consigned to mouse pads and coffee mugs.
Trembling Earth puts forward a passionate observer of the human in contact with the rest of nature. Take Digging Men with Horse and Cart (1920), or any of Munch’s other depictions of men and horses at work together. Online reproductions sometimes “correct” the wildness of his color palette or the wiriness of his brush strokes, but I am here to tell you firsthand that in this painting the buttocks of horse and man are rippling with the same quivering pinks, purples, and blues, mimicked and intensified in the heavy, puddling deep blue-and-red shadows cast by the human figures. (Much could be said about how paintings are reproduced in the vast unregulated wilds of the internet—too often, I’ve found, there is a tendency to subtly edit color choices that seem overly fantastical, as though assuming the casual viewer would prefer reliably green trees, blue sky, and brown soil.) The horse is the one with a gaze here, turning its neck to look partly at the laborers, partly at the painter. The men do not need faces at all in order to engage their bodies in the springing, prying motions that will shortly cause the earth to fly up in chunks. They are sturdily planted and coiled in captured energy; for the moment of the painting’s eavesdrop, this is all they need.
If we believe the painting’s choices are representational—that life preceded art here—then the farmers’ self-sufficiency and economy drove Munch to make his painting assured and economical in turn. If Munch’s mystical beliefs—of which he had a great many, rhapsodically held—in fact derived from what was before him, then the pure potential radiating through the horse and two men, in chiming colors, is made to swim along their surface because Munch thought that the great cascade of birth, life, and death hummed through us at all times, and that one job of painting was to communicate this reality. Surely both are true and inexplicable, that Munch was showing what he literally saw and also what he spiritually saw, and perhaps disdained the distinction. “Nature is the means not the goal,” he wrote in one of his notebooks of pronouncements. “If one can achieve something by changing nature—then one must do so—In an intense state of mind.” The intensity is what welds the changes onto the real so that the new achievement holds.
How different from, for example, the work of Jean-François Millet a couple of generations earlier, paintings with peasants in the same stooped and arced postures who nevertheless look like they could be—should be, deserve to be—scooped cleanly off the landscape, like picking a chalice up from an altar and parading it down the aisles of a church in the arms of a priest. They are exemplary and venerable, and the land and sky back away as much as possible so as not to clutter this vision with mere planetary mass. Munch’s workers, horses, and the field flowing between them are all a convergence of energies, plasma-like. (Both are romanticizations of a kind, of course, with only limited interest in the interiority of the people they portray.)
In the world Munch’s painting invites us to behold, it’s not surprising that the horse is pink and purple, and not just for the didactic reason that the Impressionists taught us, that flickers across the color spectrum truly do flare up in certain moments across objects we prosaically think of as having a more solid, boring hue. The horse’s color also feels fitting and completely acceptable because we are invited to behold the world as we know it with its hidden, potential intensities made visible, like seeing a plain bottle turn a trilling orange in a glassblower’s kiln.
The earlier Children in the Forest, made in 1901–1902—when Munch’s alcoholism hadn’t yet reached its nadir, but before he’d found some measure of peace and better health by permanently moving closer to the countryside—also shows human beings in a rural landscape, though there’s something deliberately thwarted and frustrating about the scene. For starters, the children are not actually in, but rather approaching, the screen of flickering trees. The conifers swerve in awkward and unexpected angles, like seal flippers negotiating a clipped lawn. The trees appear stranded on the land (there is a flat, mown meadow in the foreground, where the children are standing) as though the presence of people, and perhaps of forestry as a science and a practice, has rendered them too exposed. Their response is to become flatter and more enigmatic, retreating into whatever hermetic inwardness is left to them. They are trees that react to being viewed.
But then we remember the children, rendered by Munch as a row of little umbilical hats propped up by thick, sturdy outfits, likely picked out for them by grown-ups. And we remember what it can be like, in childhood, to feel that one’s only strategy to the predicament of being on view is to further enhance one’s own awkwardness, to amplify one’s predicament. And at the same time, the children are also stand-ins for us, looking at a painting, while the forest is also art itself, trying to recede from inquisition, to somehow elude us while remaining in plain sight. Can a painting be self-conscious? This one is.
Not all forests are alike on Planet Munch. I find myself most thrilled and terrified by his unpopulated landscapes that appear to glory in the absence of human interlopers, rolling and extending like a cat in the sun. Elm Forest in Autumn (1919–1920) is a dense mesh of currant-colored tree trunks with viscous, yolky golds swirling above and below them. Rugged Trunks, made from 1928 to 1930, does the same with a greater preponderance of greens and browns, and with two human figures painted over and crosshatched but still dimly visible in the foreground, while in the background two minuscule stick figures could be people, or phantoms, or perhaps merely sticks. The world without us is a quivering, intelligent place, these paintings say. It appears livelier and more forceful than the current planet we inhabit because it is not dulled by accommodating us. In both compositions, there is no obvious footing or promise of solid ground. Spokes and arcs of color might bear human or animal weight, or might be diaphanous as clouds—these are paintings uninterested in telling us what to expect, depicting a wilderness that feels likewise.
To be sure, I’m leaning here on what the painting does, which is possibly a half-step beyond what Munch thought the painting was doing. For him, “on the whole, Art comes from one human being’s compulsion to communicate with another.” For me, the particular hat trick in these and other of Munch’s paintings is that while they are, yes, made by a person for a public, they speak of a context in which those very notions of people and public are irrelevant. In his bottomless forests, we overhear the world of nonhuman organic matter talking to itself in idioms of which our comprehension or incomprehension is utterly superfluous. It’s a club that doesn’t care whether we show up to the meeting or not.
My husband and I (marriage: another kind of club that seems at first very hard to get into, and then suddenly the least select thing in the world) have a bank of unfunny jokes and stock phrases, as all couples do. One is that, in lieu of saying hello and goodbye, we sometimes riff on James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.” Him: “Stay on the scene?” Me: “Like a [whatever] machine.” The “whatever” can be the work of writing, parenting, befriending, housekeeping, daughtering. I am a machine with many outlets and adaptors. But it’s being on the scene that I do too well, too often. We moved to New York City in part because we like being present for the backstage chatter that surrounds the emergence of new works of art and writing, and now happily inhabit a landscape that seems to be thatched together by gossip, rent stabilization, and fire escapes. In its commentariat aspects, it’s a lot like being “very online” in three dimensions. I run into six people who want to tell me what they think about somebody’s just-published essay before I have a chance to sit alone with the writing in question.
Munch left the various “scenes” available to him—the world of drinkers, the world of artists and literati, the world of peripatetic flaneurs hotfooting around the cities and trendy spots of continental Europe—and moved first to a small coastal town, then to a former plant nursery on the outskirts of Oslo. Seeing oneself being seen, and eavesdropping constantly on the thoughts of others—the iterative, repetitious, Echo-and-Narcissus temptation of life in community (online, urban, or elsewhere)—no longer held the same appeal it had once had when he wrote in his early notebooks of social life’s pleasant and endless frivolities. “I amuse myself taking care I [am] always well groomed—that my silk top hat sits well on the head.” And elsewhere, “I love life—life even sick—summer days with their sun, with clatter in the street, the clatter of vehicles, dust in the street, the movement of people on the sidewalk.” The steady, quotidian world of people viewing and on view was forsaken for a different terrain:
I am walking along a narrow path. A steep precipice on one side, it is…a depth bottomlessly deep[.] Across on the other side are meadows, mountains, houses, people. I am walking and staggering along the precipice…. I throw myself toward the meadow, the houses, mountains, people. I whirl about in the vibrant life— but I must return to the path along the precipice. That is my way, which I must walk.
Munch was not an especially great writer: A bit pompous, full of overripe yet weirdly generic description, most of the above quotations would not be out of place in an undergraduate creative writing class. But the intensity feels palpable and sincere, and in painting he found the language to show us the wobble between the desire for ego to be dissolved in nature’s tumult and the awareness of self that keeps this from entirely happening.
Look at Munch’s paintings of bathers sometime when you feel that you no longer know how to inhabit the physical world freely, without thinking about it. (In Trembling Earth there are: Bathing Men [1907–1908], Bathing Man , and Young Man on the Beach ) What is a bather? A person who has come prepared to enact an encounter with nature at its most literally fluid. (The preparation separates a bather from, say, a victim of shipwreck or foul play. The focus on encounter separates, I think, a bather from a swimmer, who is out to exert herself against resistance.) Munch’s figures in water are unremittingly strong and handsome, but one senses they have ordinary desires and trepidations. They have resolved, it seems to me, on bathing, and have the aura of people approaching a shrine who are uncertain about what’s supposed to happen next. They are knee-deep; they are undertaking to establish a rapport with the water. But do they splash their shoulders first, or dunk their whole heads? Should they acknowledge the artist on the shoreline?
Their hesitation, their arms held a few inches away from their hips as though they don’t want to touch their own skin, feels knowable and known. Apparent good health, Nordic summer sunshine, and a supposedly simpler historical epoch than our own have not resolved their difficulty. I feel cheered looking at them, and not only because of the utter vivacity of the violet and cornflower crosshatching of one man’s legs and the sharp green wings formed by shins slicing into saltwater elsewhere. I want to know that we have long been flummoxed by the right note to strike, wanting to be part of something wilder and larger than ourselves but hampered, perhaps, by our smallness and our thoughts.
For Munch the answer was to strive, always, to be unabashed. His massy heaps of color, his sun rays that often hold as much or more visual weight as a mountain or a horse—they are open admissions of how tall an order it is to join them as peers, as fellow particles of nature. We can scream, or we can glow like blown glass. Either will transport us to the roil of the cosmos, which may not know we’re here, but makes room anyway.