I’d never seen a Munch in person before I went to visit the Munch Museum in Norway this past September. Walking its halls, I saw many of Munch’s famous works: The Scream, Yellow Logs, Anxiety… I have found that when I see paintings too many times in print or online before seeing them in person I am not as dazzled as I thought I would be. The real reward in going to museums, for me, is finding works I’ve never seen before—I’m still young enough that this happens frequently. And then, when I return to the museum later, it’s like going to visit old friends, their familiar faces teaching me more each time. So seeing The Scream, because of our digital acquaintance, didn’t do for me what The Sun did.
When I first saw The Sun, my feelings were something between shock and adoration. The Sun is not really a painting about the sunrise but about the body and the relationship of paint to Munch’s psyche. Its symmetry mirrors the symmetry of my body, and of Munch’s. Standing directly in front of this painting, the sun greets me, mirroring the position of my head. The tongue-like shape that stretches down from the central sun aligns with my own tongue. I realize the painting is sticking its tongue out at me, and I’m laughing.
The sun shines on me, from left temple to right temple, and makes my eyes squint; it’s bright in here. The dashed marks that skip outwards from the sun spread out around my head like a halo, crowning me in light. This painting has its own source of energy and light—the sun warms its viewer as well as the cool purple mountains along the bottom of the painting that cup its energy.
Munch painted and re-painted this piece throughout his career on different surfaces. The Sun was a reliable painting. Munch could enter and re-enter it, tumble and turn with it. He threw himself into the sun like a boomerang and it shot him out somewhere new each time. This was his proving ground.
In this version, the risen sun shatters those purple mountains. The light that skips across the surface of the ‘landscape’ forces the painting to separate into two distinct realities: the radiant energy of the sun on top and the cold brittle shards of the land below. The land is in direct relationship with that sun, the rays of light that radiate outwards touch each hill and valley, changing their color—red, yellow, orange, purple—as they refract across the mountain’s peaks and valleys, rushing towards the edge of the painting. The looser brushwork that describes the green and yellow flowers, which dance in the bottom right quadrant, acts differently. In a painting that is based around the circle and the spokes of light that spin out from its middle, this bouquet of greenish color unravels that logic and leaves me with something to mull over. I recover my balance in the museum hall, head still spinning and vision dappled in sunspots.
The sun is the anxiety that Munch lived with. This 1910 version of The Sun was painted shortly after a stay in a psychiatric clinic where Munch was treated with the then-popular ‘electrification’ treatment. This sunburst, this light bulb, this seeing within and without, feels like a re-birth for Munch. The shock-therapy sun illuminates a celebratory shift in him from his previous physicality and way of looking at the world to a new way, in mood and color, paintbrush in hand. This is a visionary painting.