Studies in The Human Condition: Sotheby's to sell important group of prints by Edvard Munch

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Studies in The Human Condition: Sotheby's to sell important group of prints by Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones. The very rare woodcut printed in black and charcoal grey, 1899. Estimate: 250,000-350,000 GBP. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Edvard Munch's graphic works are among the artist's most powerful images, revered for their haunting summation of the human condition. On 16 September 2014, Sotheby's will present an important group in a London auction of Prints & Multiples. The 11 prints comprise a selection of woodcuts, lithographs and etchings, and demonstrate Munch's experimentation with a variety of graphic media. Each work embodies a different emotional and psychological tone, the result of Munch's use of various techniques and combinations of colours to express mood and elicit emotional responses in the viewer. The 10 lots are estimated to bring a combined total in excess of £1,000,000.

Séverine Nackers, Sotheby’s Head of Prints, Europe, comments: “The demand from collectors worldwide for prints by Edvard Munch continues unabated. For our September sale, we have secured a superb group, including two works from a private Scandinavian collection.* Munch laid bare raw human emotion in his imagery, and as an innovative printmaker, he produced works that still resonate with us more than a century later. Although many of Munch's prints were based on paintings, he did not rework the same themes with an aim of reproducing his painted images. Instead, he worked on his painting and printmaking in tandem, the technical features of one media informing his explorations in the other."

Leading the group is Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones, a subject which stands out in Munch's body of work in all media for the artist's deliberate and unusual use of black and grey. The Lonely Ones (1899) exists in one of the widest variety of different colour combinations, some impressions with as many as eight colours. This print, estimated at £250,000- 350,000, appears to be the only known impression in black and grey in private hands. The Munch Museum has only one similar impression that is comparable in quality and colouration. The coolness of the inks used here evokes a sense of stark isolation; the woodcut’s simplicity and effects of contrast enhance the potency of the subject.

Munch printed approximately 20 proofs of Moonlight I (1896) in similar colour variations; the range of the amount of ink used and the shifting prominence of the image or the wood grain make each individual print unique. For his woodcuts, Munch exclusively chose blocks of wood sawn lengthwise. In this impression, estimated at £150,000- 250,000, the subtle interplay between the cut lines of the subject and the structure of the wood grain, most importantly in the woman's face, show Munch at the height of his graphic powers.

Munch exerted careful control over the printing of one-off impressions after the initial pull from a copperplate, lithographic stone or wood block, and he obsessed over their maintenance, storage and transport. In two variants of his highly controversial lithograph Madonna, it is evident how he developed the subject over time, between 1895 and 1913, and changed the drawing in order to distinguish later impressions.

The first, estimated at £100,000-150,000, shows the composition in the early state, printed in black, a frame on three sides populated with swimming spermatozoa and a foetus in the lower left corner. The second, also estimated at £100,000-150,000, shows the final state, now printed in four colours, with the border masked out by the printing process and long strands of hair at her hips comprising the new drawing. The fourth colour, an olive-green tone, suggests an otherworldly appearance in the woman's form. The radiating halo-like lines following her contour now seem to end in the new tendrils of hair at her lower torso. Munch has shifted the symbolic nuance from the physical in the earlier print to the spiritual in the later version, underscoring his ability to change the mood and emotion of his subjects with subtle changes. Munch spoke of the subject as ‘The woman who abandons herself – and acquires the painful beauty of a Madonna’ (quoted on page 62 in Edvard Munch: 50 Graphic Works from the Gundersen Collection).

Munch was heavily involved in the printing process of his graphic works and while he printed many experimental impressions himself, he also chose to work with the most renowned printers in Paris and Berlin at the time. The intaglio prints Consolation (1894, estimate £15,000-25,000) and The Kiss (1895, estimate £70,000-90,000) are both fine impressions, with expressively wiped shadows that allowed for a wide range of variation from print to print. Munch also controlled the mood through his choice of different kinds of paper, varying the weight and texture to produce different ink absorption effects.

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