Edvard Munch, ‘The Girls on the Bridge’, 1918, Christie's

Prints by Edvard Munch from the Collection of Dr Heinrich Becker, Bielefeld

It is rare today to find works of art from the early 20th century which have been in a single collection ever since they were acquired directly from the artist. Yet this is the case with this fine group of prints by Edvard Munch from the collection of Dr Heinrich Becker. A high-school teacher by training and profession, Heinrich Becker had a passion for modern art. Promoting art and artists was a vocation he pursued resolutely and selflessly for all his life.

Born in Braunschweig in 1881, Becker studied languages and history of art in Leipzig and Göttingen and graduated with a dissertation on early French literature in 1905. In 1908 he settled in Bielefeld in Westphalia, Germany, where he taught German, French, English and history of art until his retirement in 1947. In his spare time, he began to organise art exhibitions, at first of local painters but soon also of famous artists such as Emil Nolde and Käthe Kollwitz. These first exhibitions took place in a single room provided by the Municipal Museum of Bielefeld, until in 1927 a building was found and the Städtisches Kunsthaus Bielefeld was established, a civic foundation that Heinrich Becker served as honorary director. Two years later he initiated the formation of a ‘Freundeskreis’, a support group which helped fund the exhibitions through the fees and donations of its members. Local arts clubs of this kind played an invaluable role in supporting the avant-garde in Germany during the first half of the 20th century, and the Kunsthaus Bielefeld exhibited, amongst others, Franz Marc, August Macke and Edvard Munch. Becker befriended many of the artists he worked with, and the archives of the Munchmuseet in Oslo hold a total of 17 letters from Becker to Munch, beginning in 1930, when Becker first proposed to hold an exhibition of the artist's work. The acquisitions of the prints offered here are detailed in this correspondence.

These early years of the Kunsthaus turned out to be a short flourishing: in 1933 the local Nazi administration disapproved of Dr Becker’s exhibition programme and forced him to step down. On the occasion of his dismissal, as a thank-you for many years of dedicated unpaid work, the chairmen of the ‘Freundeskreis’ presented Heinrich Becker with the very impression of Munch’s Girls on the Bridge (lot 33) which Becker had acquired for the Kunsthaus a couple of years earlier. Presumably they also feared that the woodcut might be confiscated and sold off or destroyed as ‘degenerate art’, if it were to remain in the collection. A label attached to the back of the print bears witness to this wise and generous gift.

In May 1945 - the Nazi government had just collapsed and the war barely ended - Heinrich Becker re-applied for the directorship of the Kunsthaus, which he would lead from then on until he finally retired in 1954. In recognition of his enormous contribution to art and culture, he was honoured with the German Order of Merit in 1961. He died in 1972; his collection has since remained in the family for three generations.

Signed in pencil, titled Madchen auf der Brucke, numbered No. 10 serie II at lower left corner, a fine and even impression of this rare and important subject, second state (after the removal of some of the marks within the white dress of the girl in the foreground), a rare variant of this state printed in black, printed by Nielsen, Norway, with wide margins, probably the full sheet, some light- and mount staining, generally in good condition.
Block 500 x 428 mm., Sheet 710 x 545 mm.

From the Catalogue:
The present woodcut from 1918 is Munch’s final and most significant rendering of the subject of The Girls on the Bridge, a motif that he had worked on as early as 1901 in a painted version now in the National Gallery, Oslo, Norway. The scene depicts the jetty in the seaside village of Åsgårdstrand, on the Christiana fjord north of the capital, where Munch owned a small house.

The painted and the woodcut version closely resemble each other in composition, yet the softer lines of the painting, still rooted in the style of the art nouveau, are here articulated in a harder, expressionist manner, accentuated by the woodcut medium. The present composition, like the other printed versions, is reversed on its horizontal axis and shows a formal and psychological mirroring of the scene.

During 1908-09 Munch had suffered from an emotional collapse, which may have been caused by the death of his muse Aase Nørregard. It has been suggested that the figure of the girl in white in another of Munch’s seminal woodcuts, Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones, was inspired by Nørregard and it is tempting to think that the figure of the girl in white in The Girls on the Bridge, with her head downcast and looking into the black expanse of water below, was also inspired by Munch’s memories of his departed friend.

The three silent figures stand in a unified group, huddled together as if threatened by the looming linden tree and its reflection in the water below. The dense vertical striations in the sky and on the floor of the jetty seem to imprison the figures into a kind of paralysis or lethargy. At the same time, the sharp diagonal incisions of the railing collide with the vertical gouges on the floor and in the sky to create a vortex of movement in an otherwise static scene. It is this simultaneous sense of quiescence and internal unrest, which is central to Munch’s temperament, and which makes The Girls on the Bridge a quintessential work in his printed oeuvre.
—Courtesy of Christie's

Schiefler 488; Woll 628

Acquired directly from the artist by Dr. Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Becker (1881-1972) for the Städtisches Kunsthaus Bielefeld in 1931, for 100 kr. (according to a letter from Becker to Edvard Munch, dated 9 April 1931 [Munchmuseet MM K 3688]).
A gift by the Städtisches Kunsthaus Bielefeld to Heinrich Becker, on occasion of his dismissal as director of the Kunsthaus by the Nazi government in 1933 (according to a note attached to the back of the sheet: Als Dank für Ihre jahrelange selbstlose Arbeit/ für das Bielefelder Kunstleben/ überreicht vom/ “Freundeskreis des Bielefelder Kunsthauses”/ der Vorstand: [signed by] D. Emdenberg (?) Walther Delius Otto Lorenz/ September 1933); then by descent to the present owners.

About Edvard Munch

A recognized forerunner of Expressionism, Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch is renowned for his representations of emotion. Associated with the international development of Symbolism, Munch experimented with many different themes, palettes, and styles of drawing. Though stylistically influenced by Paul Gauguin and the Nabis, Munch’s subjects are drawn from his Scandinavian roots and his own tortured psyche. His most famous painting, The Scream (1893), illustrates a tormented cry translated into waves of color that resonate across the landscape. Though based on Munch’s own experience, The Scream has become an instantly recognizable symbol of anxiety and alienation. Often reworking his paintings into etchings and lithographs, Munch was also one of the major graphic artists of the 20th century—he took an experimental approach to printmaking and contributed to the revival of the woodcut.

Norwegian, 1863-1944, Løten, Norway, based in Oslo, Norway