Recently I visited Chicago where I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference as well as a new exhibition of Edvard Munch's artwork. At the writing conference, one of the best panels I partook was on flash fiction where Ron Carlson, Robert Olen Butler and other authors read funny and moving short pieces. Butler also spoke about the difference between very short stories and prose poems.
Butler said, "When you have a human being centrally present in a literary work and you let the line length run on and you turn the page, you are, as they say in a long storytelling tradition, ‘upon a time.'"
As his audience absorbed that thought, he added, "Any Buddhist will tell you, a human being--or a ‘character' in your story--cannot exist for even a few seconds of time on planet Earth without desiring something. Yearning is a word I prefer because it suggests the deepest level of desire, where literature strives to go. Every short story is about yearning."
This thought of yearning made me think of my own characters who always have a conscious goal and often an unconscious one marked by yearning.
Later that day, I realized how yearning, too, is so much a part of Edvard Munch's artwork. Four blocks down from the conference was the Chicago Institute of Art, which, on Valentines Day, opened a new show called Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I'd lived in Denmark at one time, where I learned about Munch in a Scandinavian art history class, and I've traveled a few times to Oslo where I immersed myself in the Munch Museum.
Some people pigeonhole Munch as the anxiety-ridden artist who best expressed a fear of life in "The Scream." But he didn't fear life entirely. He traveled extensively, especially to Germany and Paris where he learned from many other artists including the Impressionists. His early work was realistic, as shown in the exhibition in a painting of a young woman sitting in a Norwegian field.
During a Paris trip, he experimented with pointillism and broader, more expressionistic brush strokes. His scenes were not anxiety-filled but rather peaceful.
Munch painted outdoors often and captured its beauty, such as in his own version of "Starry Night." Later, though, he focused in on deep emotions, things other painters avoided. Then again, he was encouraged to do so when he saw a few other artists show the sadder side of life, such as Norwegian painter Hans Heyerdahl in his "Dying Child," of 1889, that Munch admired in writing. Munch went on to paint several scenes of his sister Sophie dying of tuberculosis, which she did when he and she were both teenagers. His mother, too, died of the disease when he was very young.
Munch through a long career experimented with technique and loved to focus on emotion, including love, desire, depression, jealousy, and, yes, anxiety. Part of his anxiousness had been fueled not only by the death around him when he was young, but also by a deeply religious father. Munch wrote in his diary, "The angels of fear, sorrow and death stood by my side since the day I was born. They stood by my bedside when I shut my eyes, threatening me with death, hell and eternal damnation."
Still, Munch also held an awe of beauty. His experiments in color, painting techniques, and different printing techniques including woodcuts, etching, and lithography let him push the intensity of his emotions. This guy felt things.
Because he drank heavily at times and had a number of affairs, drama happened, too, including a jilted girlfriend who shot off part of one of his fingers. This particular incident became an obsession to him, which can be seen in images of women sucking the blood of men. Other paintings show a woman's red hair enveloping a man, trapping him. Yet he desired, yearned.
The fact he felt sadness and negative emotions is perhaps what fascinates people to this day. The Chicago show is unlike anything I've seen in an art show. The paintings and prints are arranged not chronologically, but by subject matter in fourteen rooms.
This kind of show is fertilizer for a writer. Even though I teach writing, I tend to discourage stories about writers. Look around at life being lived. Learn from other types of artists. Learn from yourself--from your own yearnings. Examine life and any possible meaning.
To read what the New York Times wrote about this show, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/13/arts/design/13munc.html?_r=1&em
A good short biography of Munch is here: http://www.mnc.net/norway/munch.htm
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