Edvard Munch, most famous for his painting “The Scream,” gets a Tacoma Art Museum show that dials in on his delicate — though psychologically dramatic — renderings of seascapes.

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It’s unusual to see any work by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in the Pacific Northwest, and that makes the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) exhibition “Edvard Munch and the Sea” something special. It’s a small but exquisitely mounted show featuring one painting, 25 prints and one Andy Warhol spin on Munch’s “The Scream” — more on that in a moment.

The impetus for the exhibit was the upcoming 125th anniversary of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. Elisabeth Ward, director at PLU’s Scandinavian Cultural Center, was looking for community partners to help PLU celebrate its Norwegian roots. Ward was thinking in terms of contemporary Norwegian artists, but TAM had a different idea.

As Margaret Bullock, the museum’s curator of collections and special exhibitions, explained in a recent interview, “We were like: ‘Norway? We’re going straight to Munch!’ … It was a little insane because we own no Munchs.” PLU, however, had a connection with the honorary consul for Norway in Seattle, and he knew art collector Sarah G. Epstein, who owns the largest collection of Munch prints outside Oslo’s Munch Museum.


‘Edvard Munch and the Sea’

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays through July 17 at Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $12-$14, third Thursdays free 5 p.m.-8 p.m. (253-272-4258 or tacomaartmuseum.org).

“She was only willing to lend if it was a different or interesting topic,” Bullock said. When Rock Hushka, TAM’s chief curator, toured Epstein’s collection in Washington, D.C., he noticed how important landscape was to the artist. TAM gave Bullock responsibility for the project, and after studying the Epstein Family Collection’s Munch prints more closely, she told her colleagues: “You know, it’s not just landscape — it’s the sea.”

That angle appealed to Epstein and she made the loans. She was also in the midst of donating her collection to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., so that opened another source for borrowing.

“Edvard Munch and the Sea” is all about Munch as a printmaker. The fascinating thing about his prints is how their smallest variations in detail can alter their emotional or atmospheric charge.

“Lovers at the Seaside” (a drypoint and aquatint) and “Two Human Beings (The Lonely Ones)” (a color woodcut), for instance, are near-identical depictions of a woman and man standing on a rocky shoreline, their stances suggesting simultaneous connection and estrangement. In the color woodcut, however, the man’s head is turned a tad more emphatically toward the woman, making him seem both more aggressive and more powerless in this relationship. The colors of the woodcut also stress how she stands out, ghostlike, from her rocky surroundings while he seems half-embedded in them.

Another two prints — “Summer Evening” and “Summer Night. The Voice” — show a woman standing in woods with her back to the sea. In the first, her chin is raised defiantly and her shadow-ringed eyes speak more of disturbance than serenity. In the latter, her head is level and her gaze more calm and direct.

Female energy dominates the show. In his lithograph “On the Waves of Love,” water currents and a woman’s long, floating hair merge with strange psychosexual power, while in a pair of lithographs titled “Attraction” a man and woman are drawn together by both swirling elements in the seaside setting and the ensnaring tendrils of the woman’s hair (Munch’s love life was not exactly happy).

While no Munch version of “The Scream” is included in the show, one color lithograph, “Angst” — in which a sinister crowd comes straight for the viewer — features the same unstable harbor-and-sky backdrop as Munch’s best-known work.

Warhol’s screen print on paper, “The Scream (After Munch),” isn’t just there as a poor substitute for the original. It’s one in a series of Munch images that Warhol played with obsessively a few years before his death, and it drives home the powerful impact this Norwegian master had on artists to come.