Death, Love, and the Maiden (and Me)

  • The Sick Child
  • Program for Death, Love and the Maiden
The Sick Child

1925 painting by Edvard Munch


Death, Love, and the Maiden (and Me)

Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Fall 2017

I first read the title on an overcrowded spreadsheet, interesting, but no more so than Soup Tureens from the Campbell Museum, or America Underfoot: A History of Floor Coverings from Colonial Times to the Present. To me, it was just ‘EXH197502’, (no poster), one of 156 exhibits from 1969 till 2010. It only really caught my interest when I saw the program from an old file case in the Frick Fine Arts Reading Room. It was blue, crumpled, and featured a skeletal figure, cupid with a bow and arrow, and a sleeping woman. The program read, Death, Love and the Maiden with a conspicuous lack of an oxford comma. Grammar aside, it appealed to me.

Most of my work this year, as an intern for the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery, has been useful if occasionally unglamorous. After I spent a month transferring the online exhibit Configuring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia from the Constellations website to the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery website, I spent most of my time digitizing old posters and programs. It was a lot of unrolling posters, rerolling them into tubes, and balancing them on the shuttle on the way to the University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center. Once there, I would unroll the posters, scan them one by one, and transfer the files onto a flash drive. Then I would reroll them into the tubes, balance them on the shuttle back to Hillman Library, where I would then crop and edit the files using Adobe Photoshop. After that I would crosscheck my spreadsheets, give them the proper file names, and upload them to the University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery website.

The work could become robotic, systematic, which was relaxing in some ways. It was an easy pattern I could fall into. The actual weight of what I was doing came in waves; I was holding something that might have been unseen for 40 years. These posters and programs are not just objects to be mindlessly catalogued. They are paper and cardboard objects yes, but they are also  primary sources, works of art unto themselves, and they are sometimes the last remaining artefacts of an exhibition.

That wave of recognition came to me as I held the program for Death, Love and the Maiden in my hands. Outside of the usual research I did for my internship, I decided to investigate this particular show further. In my search, I came across a Pittsburgh Post Gazette article about the exhibition from May 21, 1975, entitled “Pitt Art Exhibit Views Women.”  The article describes the exhibition as “a modest multimedia exhibit” that is “not only inherently interesting, but does what scholarship should do: present information that deepens awareness of life and art.” The article identifies the Sick Child, a 1925 painting by Edvard Munch, as the centerpiece of the exhibit. It was the only painting exhibited and was lent to the University along with two prints of the same subject by the Munch Museum of Oslo.

A little more research let me to an image of the painting itself. The painting is haunting; its use of bright colors stands in direct juxtaposition to its dark subject matter; an older woman sobbing next to a child’s sickbed. Clearly the image haunted Munch himself, who painted six different versions of the painting over the course of 40 years. Critics speculate that the girl in the paintings is Munch’s sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at 15.

Confronted with this image, I am reminded of the closing words of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s article about Death, Love and the Maiden; “the exhibit will not be forgotten by those who study it carefully.” Forty-two years later, the statement still rings true. While working with historic objects, it is easy to become desensitized, to see them only as objects devoid of history. But every once in awhile, I come across something with a story, something that sticks to my bones, and I think of all the other people the object is still stuck with, the memories it helped create, and the effort that went into making it. Then I find myself in awe of the passage of time and the persistence of memory.

See Madeline's work at the UAG here

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