Sometimes it is impossible to say why and how a work of art achieves its effect. I can stand in front of a painting and become filled with emotions and thoughts, evidently transmitted by the painting, and yet it is impossible to trace those emotions and thoughts back to it and say, for example, that the sorrow came from the colours, or that the longing came from the brushstrokes, or that the sudden insight that life will end lay in the motif.
One picture I feel this way about was painted by Edvard Munch in 1915. It depicts a cabbage field. The cabbages in the foreground are roughly executed, almost sketch-like, dissolving into green and blue brushstrokes deeper into the background. Next to the cabbage field there is an area of yellow, over that an area of dark green, and over that again a narrow band of darkening sky.
That is all, that is the whole painting.
But the picture is magical. It is so charged with meaning, looking at it I feel as if something is bursting within me. And yet it is just a field of cabbages.
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Cabbage Field (1915), oil on canvas, Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway
So what is going on with this painting?
When I look at its colours and shapes, which are so radically simplified that they suggest a landscape more than they represent it, I see death, as if the painting intended a reconciliation with death, but a trace of something terrible remains, and what is terrible is the unknown, that we don’t know what awaits us.
But Munch’s painting doesn’t really say anything, doesn’t give form to anything other than cabbages, grain, trees and sky. And yet death, and yet reconciliation, and yet peace, and yet a trace of something terrible.
Is it simply that the line of the field leads inwards, towards darkness, and that dusk is descending in the sky above?
Perhaps. But many have painted fields, many have painted dusk, without attaining what this painting so calmly radiates.
Munch was around fifty years old when he painted Cabbage Field. He was known as a painter of the inner life, of dream, death and sexuality. He had gone through a life crisis, after that he withdrew from social life, and he no longer sought out pain when he painted, he turned outwards, he painted the sun. And that isn’t hard to understand, everything begins anew when the sun rises. Darkness yields, the day opens up, the world once again becomes visible. Over the next thirty years he painted what he saw there, in the visible world. But the visible world is not objective reality, it appears to each individual as seen by them, and Munch’s great gift lay in his ability to paint not only what his gaze took in, but also what that gaze was charged with.
There is a longing in this painting of the cabbage field, a longing to disappear and become one with the world. And that longing to disappear and become one with the world fulfilled the painting for him, fulfilled for him the act of painting. That is why this painting is so good, what disappears re-emerges in what comes into being, and if the disappearance ceased for the painter as soon as he finished the painting, it is still represented in the picture, which fills us again and again with its emptiness.
Cabbages. Grain and forest.
Yellow and green, blue and orange.