Alongside van Gogh, Munch was the key pioneer of Expressionism whose influence on the course of modern art cannot be overstated. Both artists used the genre of landscape as a vehicle to express inner states of being. In depicting nature in a highly individual, internalized manner, Munch draws on the tradition of stemningsmaleri, or 'mood-painting', characteristic of Nordic art towards the end of the nineteenth century. Alongside several fellow avant-garde artists, Munch abandoned the plein-air naturalism which had dominated Norwegian landscape painting, in favor of an emotionally charged and resonant vision of nature. In the present masterpiece, he took as a starting point a scene he would have witnessed in Åsgårdstrand (fig. 6), similiar to the location in Oslo at Nordstrand where he painted his legendary composition, The Scream (see fig. 2). Returning to this site for Girls on a Bridge, Munch used the expressive power of color and line to arrive at a highly lyrical composition.
Girls on a Bridge, one of Munch's most widely popular and acclaimed motifs, was painted during one of the most turbulent periods of his life. The rich symbolism of this picture relates to Munch's Frieze of Life, which takes the stages of a young woman's development from puberty to maturity as one of its themes. Girls on a Bridge continues Munch's exploration of these themes of sexual awakening and mortality: The image of a cluster of young women, huddled in a secretive mass between two points of land, resonates with explosive tension. Recalling his own emotional instability during the years he painted this image, Much wrote to his friend Jens Thiis, probably in 1933: "...those years from 1902 until the Copenhagen clinic [in 1908] were the unhappiest, the most difficult and yet the most fateful and productive years of my life." Discussing Girls on a Bridge (fig. 1), now at the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Antonia Hoerschelmann wrote: "Contemporary critics praised the work enthusiastically as perhaps the most mature and accomplished painting produced by the painter Edvard Munch. The painting was also received with great enthusiasm in Berlin, where Munch showed it to fellow artists in 1902. He reports that Max Liebermann considered it his best painting" (Antonia Hoerschelmann in Edvard Munch – Theme and Variation (exhibition catalogue), Albertina, Vienna, 2003, p. 293).
As was often the case with his successful works that he did not like to part from, Munch went on to produce several versions of Girls on a Bridge, creating between 1901 and 1935 a total of twelve known oil paintings and a number of variations in etching, lithograph and woodcut. Of the works in oil, several are in the collections of museums around the world, including Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo; The Pushkin Museum, Moscow; Bergen Billedgalleri (see fig. 5); Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Munch Museum, Oslo. Sue Prideaux has described how critical this image was for the artist: "The Girls on the Bridge is a continuation of his redemption-landscapes, a wish for resurrection into a clean clear world inhabited by innocents, a hope that all loves need not be disastrous. The first time he showed it, the painting became enormously popular; he had already promised it to Olaf Shou in place of one that had been destroyed in a shipwreck, but he wrote to Tante Karen, 'shame it was sold, I could have sold it twenty times over.' It has remained one of his most popular images. In his mind, it occupied a very special place" (Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch, Behind the Scream, New Haven and New York, 2005, p. 202).
Munch first visited Åsgårdstrand, a resort a few miles to the south of Oslo, in autumn of 1888. He took a holiday residence there in the summer of 1889, which he rented for some years until he purchased a house in 1897. In the following years, Munch traveled widely across Europe, making extended visits to Berlin, Paris and Hamburg, but often returned to Åsgårdstrand during the summer months. He painted his Frieze of Life there, characterized by his expressive winding line, distorted perspective and non-naturalistic colors that would ultimately inspire the Fauves in France and Expressionists in Germany and Austria. "The countryside around the little town of Åsgårdstrand near the west bank of the Oslo Fjord held an exceptional place in Munch's art. Munch was familiar with all of its features: the gently undulating coastline, the large crowns of the linden trees, and the white fences which materialized like fluorescent bands in the summer night. After several summer holidays there, he was able to immerse himself in the essence of the place in a way which made it a reflection of his own inner landscape, while simultaneously expressing the moods and feelings of an entire generation" (Marit Lande in Edvard Munch, The Frieze of Life (exhibition catalogue), The National Gallery, London, 1992, p. 54).
Ragna Stang has described Girls on a Bridge: "Munch makes use of a handrail to accentuate the perspective – our eyes instinctively follow it towards the landscape in the background, even though we are unable to make out precisely where the railing ends and the road, which leads past the large sleeping house into the small town beyond, actually begins. The composition of this first version shows clearly how Munch has applied the same technique of elementary simplification that we have already seen in landscapes of the period. He has achieved a perfect sense of equilibrium in the way that the sharp diagonal of the handrail is matched by the white horizontal line of the wall, while the dark, brooding mass of the linden tree is mirrored in the water below the swirling lines of the shore. Munch specialized in the portrayal of still summer nights, and in this painting he has succeeded, by the use of subtle shades of pink, deep green and blue, in recapturing that mood as never before, the whole effect being further enhanced by the small, watery gold shape of the moon. Against this mellow and restrained background, the green, red and white dresses of the girls ring out as a fanfare of color, and we are reminded of the question once posed by Christian Krohg: 'Has anyone ever heard such resonant color...?" (Ragna Stang, Edvard Munch, The Man and his Art, New York, 1979, p. 170).
Expressive use of color is fundamental to the present version of Girls on a Bridge, although there are some differences in composition. In the first version, originally called Summer Night, three young girls stand on the bridge at Åsgårdstrand and gaze into the water. The midnight sun creates a mysterious half light which softens and dematerializes all the forms. Munch's draughtsmanship is organic and sinuous, paralleling contemporary developments in the decorative arts such as Art Nouveau and Jugend stijl. In comparison the present picture is characterized by a brilliant even light that eliminates mysterious shadows, sharpens and defines the forms and accentuates the contrast of color. A group of girls now clusters in the middle of the bridge, which recedes at a much sharper angle than in the Oslo picture, further into the picture plane, similar in perspective to The Scream.
Turning his back to the picturesque harbor, the artist depicted a view down the bridge, towards the houses and trees lining the river bank, with a small upward-sloping road taking the viewer's eye towards the depth of the composition. While from a structural point of view the bridge plays a similar role as in The Scream, the overall treatment of the scene provides a less dramatic, more poetic atmosphere. In the strength of its color and radical perspective, however, the present work ranks among the most confident and stunning paintings of Munch's career.
Oil on canvas
San Francisco, Department of Fine Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915, Norwegian section, no. 86 (titled Summer Night in Aasgaardstrand)
39 ¾ by 40 3/8 in. 101 by 102.5 cm
J.E.D. Trask and J. Nilson Laurvik, Catalogue de luxe of the Department of Fine Arts, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, vol. I, 1915, illustrated p. 108
Reider Revold, Bulletin, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, vol. II, 1960, no. 21, illustrated p. 58
Oslo Kommunes Kunstamlinger Arbok, 1952-1959, Oslo, 1960, no. 4, illustrated p. 45
Squire Otto Schultz, Steinkjer (before 1915 and until at least 1927)
Ragnar Moltzau, Oslo (before 1952 - after 1956)
Oscar Johannesen (1950s)
Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London (1962)
Mr and Mrs Norton Simon, Los Angeles
Sale: Christie's, New York, October 21, 1980, lot 201
The Wendell and Dorothy Cherry Collection (acquired at the above sale and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 12, 1996, lot 26)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner