Encounter in Space (1899)

Munch, Edvard (1863-1944)

Encounter in Space
Woodcut on paper, 18.5 x 25.5 cm
Museo Thyssen-BornemiszaMadrid

©Munch Museum / Munch-Ellingsen Group / VEGAP, Madrid
Carmen Thyssen Collection

The title Encounter in Space is that used by Gustav Schiefler in his catalogue of Munch‘s graphic works, compiled with the artist’s collaboration. It may therefore reasonably be regarded as authentic. That the “encounter” Munch depicts is of a sexual nature is evidenced by the presence of the spermatozoa surrounding the two figures, a motif that also features in some of his other graphic works-for example, in the border of the lithograph version of Madonna (1895). That it is of a cosmic character is emphasised not only by the title but also by the dense black of the void against which the floating male and female figures are set. Similar floating forms are found elsewhere in Munch‘s oeuvre, being usually associated with some kind of confrontation between the sexes, as in the lithograph Lovers in Waves of 1896. There also exists a version of Encounter in Space in the medium of drypoint.

The woodcut has been printed from a single block, cut into three pieces and inked separately: the woman (here bluish-green), the man (brick red) and the background (black). White contour lines around the cut-out shapes echo the strings of white sperm floating in the void and, at the same time, emphasise the separation of the figures one from another. From a psychological standpoint, their positioning is crucial. As so often in Munch‘s work, it is here the female who is made to appear the dominant force, striving purposefully ahead and upward. The male, by comparison, seems abject, despondent, incapable of action. The theme of the battle of the sexes and the relationship between man and woman also dominated his cycle of pictures The Frieze of Life, which Munch was in the process of painting or re-working at the time this print was created. The woodcut, however, is conceived in a more abstract and allusive manner than the paintings, which usually represent more directly literal or allegorical subjects.

As in the case of other woodcuts, where Munch employs the same technique of sawing up a single block and inking the parts separately (for example, Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair or Women on the Shore), the block has been subject to considerable wear. Small pieces of wood have broken off at points close to the position of the feet of both the male and the female figures; in this impression, the corresponding areas of colour loss have been filled in by hand. The use of a very thin, greyish paper may indicate that this is an artist’s proof or perhaps a trial state, hand-printed by the artist. This woodcut is, in any case, known in only a relatively small number of impressions.

Peter Vergo (T-B)