The motif of Edvard Munch’s The Girls on the Bridge has been widely recognised as one of the artist’s most celebrated, from its first unveiling in 1901. As was often the case with his successful works that he did not like to part from, Munch went on to produce several versions of The Girls on the Bridge, creating between 1901 and 1935 a total of twelve known oil paintings and a number of variations in etching, lithograph and woodcut. A rare woodcut from 1918 – the first documented impression using the colours dark blue, green and bright red-orange against teal-blue – leads Sotheby’s biannual Prints & Multiples sale in London on 29 September 2015, with an estimate of £200,000-300,000.
The first oil version of The Girls on the Bridge was painted during one of the most turbulent periods of Munch’s life. The rich symbolism relates to the artist’s Frieze of Life, which takes the stages of a young woman’s development from puberty to maturity as one of its themes. Richly symbolic and resonating with explosive tension, The Girls on the Bridge continues Munch’s exploration of these themes of sexual awakening and mortality, in the image of a cluster of young women huddled in a secretive mass between two points of land.
Turning his back to the picturesque harbour, Munch depicted a view down the bridge, towards the houses and trees lining the river bank, with a small upward-sloping road taking the viewer’s eye towards the depth of the composition. Munch’s pictorial motifs can be seen in the views depicted on Norwegian postcards issued at the time. A postcard sent by Munch shows a pier in Asgårdstrand (a resort a few miles to the south of Oslo) from the same perspective as the composition of The Girls on the Bridge (although in reverse). This postcard was published after the artist’s pictures were internationally known, showing how his motifs were integrated into popular culture.
Munch was the key pioneer of Expressionism whose influence on the course of modern art cannot be overstated. In depicting nature in a highly individual, internalised manner, he drew on the tradition of ‘mood-painting’, characteristic of Nordic art towards the end of the nineteenth century, abandoning the plein-air naturalism which had dominated Norwegian landscape painting in favour of an emotionally charged and resonant vision of nature.
The sale includes an earlier woodcut by Munch, Angst from 1896, estimated at £60,000-80,000. The last time a version of the subject printed on thin Japan paper appeared at auction was over 20 years ago.