Munch's Evening on Karl Johan Street is a scene from a nightmare, an anxiety dream worked up into a painting.
Black coated figures with corpse-white faces like Roswell aliens stream zombie-like and unstoppable towards the viewer. Munch painted this vision of Karl Johan Street, the main street of Kristiania (now Oslo), in 1892; he'd previously painted relatively realistic pictures of the street, but here it becomes the scene for an Expressionist vision of angst.
He eradicates detail; the lighted windows seem to float in space like huge rectangular kites, and the faces are featureless except for their staring eyes (and in one case a massive black bar of moustache). What in real life was a pre-theatre or after-dinner stroll has been filtered through an anguished sensibility to become a horrific zombie movie. The strong diagonal composition, with the house fronts on the left hand side of the picture crowding the evening strollers into the foreground, creates a feeling of claustrophobia.
Munch divides the painting into three blocks of colour; the red house fronts, black figures, and the dark blue sky behind, in a design that is simple and effective. His colours are lurid - acid yellow, dark blue and violet, mauve and puce; they could almost come from Van Gogh, but the effect is different - in Van Gogh the colours shine with inward light, whereas in Munch they seem to come from a dream state where everything is unreal and weirdly altered. By cropping the picture, so that the bodies of the walkers aren't shown, Munch creates a sense of threat; the heads are even more nightmarish, and seem closer to the viewer, almost bursting right out of the painting.
One dark, slight figure walks away. This is often interpreted as Munch himself, turning away from a crowd whose noise and bustle is too much for the sensitive soul of an artist. He is doubled by the huge dark mass of a single tree looming on the right. Munch has created a powerful portrayal of loneliness and fear. There is an urgency and rawness to this painting which recalls that of Munch's best known painting, The Scream, but here, the threat comes from outside, rather than from the artist's own mind.
Hi, I'm Tom!
I'm the writer and founder of TheHistoryOfArt.org. I have studied different art movements for over 15 years, and am also an amateur artist myself! Read my bio here.