Tuesday, November 1, 2016
The art history legend is that a friend of Johns saw the Munch painting in Norway, and sent him a postcard because he spotted the similarity between the bedspread and John’s trademark cross-hatched paint strokes. In fact, Ravenal – now director of the deCordova Museum near Boston – believes that Johns had already seen the painting in an exhibition in 1950, and had been interested in Munch’s work for many decades.
Ravenal asked Johns about the clock and the bed, and the artist, famously reticent to reveal any psychological insight into his work, said he was interested in painting objects positioned between other objects. Asked once about knives and forks and other kitchen implements in some of his work – they also appear in another grim Munch self-portrait of the artist about to tackle an entire cod’s head – Johns said helpfully: “My associations, if you want them, are cutting, measuring, mixing, blending, consuming – creation and destruction moderated by ritualised manners.”
Ravenal thinks both artists’ paintings are about sexuality and mortality, subjects much on the minds of both men – explicit in the Munch work, with the painting of the nude girl hanging by the bed, and the coffin-like clock measuring the remaining time, but also lurking in the shadows of the Johns.
“If the story of the postcard is true at all, it certainly came late in the process,” Ravenal said. “The connection was already there. Sex and death.”
- Maev Kennedy