August Strindberg, Edvard Munch and friends at the café 'Zum Schwarzen Ferkel', Berlin blue pencil on paper, with a subsidiary study of the figure to the left in black pencil on the verso 8 1/8 x 12 1/8 in. (20.8 x 30.9 cm) Drawn circa 1893
PROVENANCE Herbert E. Kurz (1892-1967), Chemnitz, Germany. The Piccadilly Gallery, London. Acquired from the above by the present owner in January 1973.
EXHIBITED London, The Piccadilly Gallery, Christmas Exhibition, December 1972, no. 59.
LITERATURE A. Eggum, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches and Studies, Oslo, 1984, p. 103. M. Bruteig and U. Kuhlemann Falk, Edvard Munch: Works on Paper, exh. cat., Oslo, Munch Museum, 2013, p. 126, no. 114, and p. 304 (as 'present location unknown').
In late 1892 Munch was invited to exhibit at the Verein Berliner Künstler [Berlin Artist's Association], an opportunity he accepted enthusiastically as a chance to escape from the restrictive atmosphere of his native Kristiania [now Oslo]. The paintings that he included in that exhibition aroused the anger of the conservative majority in the Association, and it was shut down after seven days. Max Liebermann and a number of younger artists left in protest, leading to the foundation of the Berlin Secessionist movement, but the resulting scandal was perhaps most significant for Munch himself. It acted as his entrée into the circle of anti-bourgeois, avant-garde artists and writers around the Swedish writer August Strindberg, who in true fin-de-siècle style were exploring exotic elements of spiritualism, the occult, anarchism and the Cult of Dionysus, as well as the philosophy of Nietszche.
The present drawing, previously known only through a photograph in the Munch Museet archive, Oslo, is a fascinating record of what was perhaps Munch's most creative period, the moment which led to the creation of The Scream, Madonna and Angst, and the beginning of his great project The Frieze of Life. The scene shows the group of North European writers and artists who frequented a tavern on the Unter den Linden in Berlin known as Zum Schwarzen Ferkel [The Black Piglet]. Strindberg was the presiding figure of this group, and is shown seated to the left of this drawing, his brooding presence emphasized by heavy hatching. Munch includes a self-portrait in profile second from the right, the Danish poet Holger Drachmann to the far right and perhaps the German lyric poet Richard Dehmel or the Norwegian Sigbjørn Obstfelder in the center.
The relationship with Strindberg was central to Munch's years in Berlin, although their similar characters made it somewhat tempestuous. Munch painted a number of portraits of the writer, including the well-known lithograph made in Paris in 1896, which memorialize a relationship characterized by an almost pathological nervousness on the part of the artist and paranoid criticism from the writer. Despite this they remained bound together by their congruous interests, particularly the discussions of the darker sides of sexuality, psychology and Satanism which characterized the Zum Schwarzen Ferkel circle. These themes found ready response in Munch's imagination and sparked the inspiration that led to The Frieze of Life. Strindberg's new marriage, crippling writer's block and the debilitating depression that would build to the Inferno crisis in Paris in 1895 made him an unstable if inspirational force: it is no surprise that he appears in the present drawing as a looming Mephistophelean figure.
Munch had abandoned formal artistic training in the early 1880s, proceeding alone with experiments in style that shifted between academic landscapes, conservative portraiture and semi-Impressionist compositions. During this time he frequented the countercultural 'Kristiania Bohème', a loose collection of artists, writers and students opposed to bourgeois society and advocating social emancipation, sexual liberation and the rejection of Christianity. In the face of government censorship and repression the movement became increasingly disengaged and introspective, perhaps best reflect in Munch's masterpiece of the period, The Sick Child (Oslo, National Gallery). It was in part this rejection that encouraged the artist to make his way in the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin. While the older generation of the Verein Berliner Künstler were not ready to accept his subjective, Expressionist experiments, he found an argumentative and temperamental group of young intellectuals ready to engage with his ideas.
It was also in Berlin that Munch first met the Modernist collector and patron Count Harry Kessler. He painted a number of portraits of this pivotal figure, including one now in the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, which like the present drawing was formerly in the collection of Herbert E. Kurz. Kurz was an important early collector of Munch, as well as being a significant connoisseur of Expressionism. His collection also included Max Beckmann's Die Synagoge in Frankfurt am Main, now in the Städel, Museum, Frankfurt.
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