Painting of the Day

27 Feb

Mermaid. by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Oil on canvas, 1896. On view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Notes from

Edvard Munch painted Mermaid during an extended stay in Paris in 1896-97, upon receiving a commission for a large-scale decorative work from Axel Heiberg, a Norwegian industrialist. This striking image of a mermaid in the process of transforming into a woman reflects the artist’s interest in Symbolism (an artistic and literary movement aimed at eliciting emotional responses from the viewer or reader) and in the themes of metamorphosis, desire, and anxiety. Munch devised the picture’s unique trapezoidal format in response to Heiberg’s intention to hang the mural just below the sloping rafters of a stair hall in his home in Lysaker, Norway.

Edvard Munch painted Mermaid, his first decorative work, in Paris in the summer of 1896, at a time of great intellectual and artistic exploration for him. Like other avant-garde artists associated with the international Symbolist style, Munch was interested in depicting the emotions and fears of the human psyche. Themes of metamorphosis, anxiety, and desire imbue this large-scale mural, designed to fit under the sloping rafters of a great hall in the home of the industrialist and collector Axel Heiberg in Lysaker, Norway. The trapezoidal painting shows a beguiling mermaid lingering in a moonlit cove, seemingly in the process of transforming into a woman. She recalls Norse myths of mermaids as melancholy beings who love humans but cannot live comfortably on land. Munch was likely influenced by these traditional stories and by Lady from the Sea, a play by the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen that opens with a scene of an artist painting a mermaid in the brackish water of the shore.

My comments:

Munch is so well known for his multiple versions of The Scream that I think his other work, which is equally as beautiful in my opinion, unfortunately gets overshadowed. Munch’s way of depicting the female body is, in my opinion, absolutely gorgeous. I immensely prefer it to Renoir’s very chubby, larger than life women. The mermaid is an interesting subject that doesn’t get depicted that often, and the trapezoidal shape of the canvas is an even rarer occurrence. This makes this painting very unusual in so many aspects. Even its depiction of the female figure is unusual, because he portrays it as thinner and less soft than artists of his time and before.

But in this painting, the frame really focuses the viewer’s eye on the mermaid, for there is little open space to which our eyes could wander. So it becomes a very intimate psychological interaction with this lone mermaid, whose loneliness is exemplified by the fact that she’s in between the world of the humans and the world of the mermaid since she’s currently in metamorphosis. She’s not fully mermaid or fully human, so she doesn’t belong to either group.

The formal layout of the image is also a bit mysterious, because we can see a ghost line near the moon in the picture where it looks like Munch had originially placed the horizon line. The finished picture, however, has the horizon line lower down in the picture plane. There would have been much less space if Munch had kept the horizon line at the original place, and the image would look radically strange with such a combination of different perspectives. But Munch wasn’t interested in creating this sort of eye-catching formal choice, which implies that he wanted more attention to be placed on the symbolic meaning behind the mermaid’s narrative rather than making a sort of witty comment on the nature of art and painting as “a lie that tells the truth,” as Picasso said. I think that he made the right choice, because the allegory that he chose to use for the idea of lack of sold identity and isolation is an unusual and refreshing one.

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