The Edvard Munch retrospective at the Tate Modern examines the career of an artist who gave the world its best known icon of horror
Often when looking at a painting, I try and imagine the artist’s thoughts and feelings at the moment of creation. It’s difficult with some—Dutch still lifes, for example, with their wealth of luxurious goods reveal more about the worldwide trade routes of the times than the sentiment behind the brush. The splendour of Renaissance images lies in the passion of a Biblical character’s features, or in the heroics of mythical heroes. Not until the turn of the 19th century, when the mimetic character of art was questioned, did the gaze turn inward. Expressionism was a style in which artists attempted to depict not objective reality, but rather the emotions that certain surroundings and situations aroused in them; they imposed their own sensibility upon the world’s representation. Mostly everyone is familiar with the gorgeous vitality of Vincent Van Gogh’s art, the confrontational directness of his work, the swirling intensity of his brush strokes. Alongside the pretty sunflowers though is an image by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch that’s equally famous, recently purchased by New York financier Leon Black for a walloping $119.9 million. Thanks to him, the Munch retrospective at the Tate Modern lacks the crowd-pulling presence of Skrik or The Scream. This fragile pastel, of which four versions exist, shows an agonised figure holding his face and screaming against the backdrop of a tumultuous scarlet sky. Even without this unforgettable piece of work, Edvard Munch: A Modern Eye, ploughs on resolutely.
The premise of the show is to wrench Munch, often seen as an artist of the late 1800s, into the arms of the 20th century. The majority of his work, after all, was produced in this time, and the ways in which he responded to and absorbed the cultural and technological developments of his era show that he was a modern artist as much as a fin-de-siècle (end of the century) one. The exhibition, spread over a sprawling nine display spaces, attempts to explore Munch’s ways of seeing—whether as a painter or an amateur photographer and filmmaker. As an Expressionist, self-examination was critical to his artistic practice, so it’s appropriate that the first room focuses on his self-portraits ranging over fifty years in a variety of media. A lithographic image shows his face emerging from darkness, while in a woodcut, the heavy gouges resemble facial wrinkles or wounds. More light hearted are his series of photographic self-portraits showing a middle-aged Munch sitting sulkily in bed, naked in a garden, or standing on a beach with a palette and brush. A large screen in a corner shows the artist flit across in a film loop like a ghost.
The next section focuses on ‘reworkings’—exploring, in mirrored pairs placed opposite each other, how Munch used recurrent motifs, reworking them in palpably new contexts— The Sick Child, for example, showing a pale girl in bed clutched by a grieving woman, draws on his memories of his little sister’s death from tuberculosis when he was 13. The Vampire is captured in various desolate settings, bending over a crouching man. The Lonely Ones stand on several different shores, staring out to sea. The Kiss, reminiscent of Klimpt’s famous painting with the same title, captures the couple on a moonlit night or in a shadowy corner, their faces featureless and blending seamlessly into each other. These repetitions, however, seem incidental when compared to the motif of The Weeping Woman that he painted with a frenetic compulsion. Set in a small floral wallpapered room, each work centres on the figure of a nude woman, her head bent in sorrow. A dramatic moment is caught with little suggestion of the surrounding sequence of events. Munch made six of these paintings—along with drawings, a photograph and a sculptural figure, which, apparently, he planned to use for his own tomb.
A sense of unexplained drama is caught in The Girls on the Bridge, which depicts, especially in its sharp use of perspective, certain features that are explored in the section on Munch’s arrangement of optical space. The paintings here, with characteristic bold brash strokes, are startling in their ability to capture movement, and resonate with dramatic immediacy; stand in front of the large-scale Workers on Their Way Home and it feels as though you are on the same street, in their way, and are about to be jostled by the crowd. Inspired by new cinematic technologies, Munch’s Galloping Horse seems to be running towards the viewer, the life-size figure of Thorvald Lochen is a step away from walking out of the frame. Also focusing on Munch’s use of space is the ‘on stage’ section, which displays a series of paintings inspired by his experience, in 1906, of collaborating with Max Reinhardt on a Berlin production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. He produced a series of paintings collectively titled The Green Room, each set in a green-wallpapered room with dramatic arrangements of furniture and props, in which characters like The Murderess and The Painter and Model play out their inscrutable parts. The works, showing three walls and the ceiling, are particularly claustrophobic, and recall the naturalistic conception of the stage as an enclosed room from which the ‘fourth wall’ has been removed for the theatre audience to peer through.
The ‘dematerialisation’ and ‘photography’ sections work well to echo each other. Munch was interested in how photographic portraiture contrasted with such work in more traditional art forms such as drawings, prints and sculpture. He shot a series of close-up images of his own face, not placing the camera on a tripod but preferring to hold it at arm’s length—oddly enough, rather like people do today with their camera phones. It is difficult to study the photos, in their sepia-tinted loveliness, without being reminded of the effects of Instagram and Photoshop. Fond of experiments with multiple exposures, and possibly influenced by late 19th century scientific discoveries such as X-rays, radioactivity and radio waves, Munch worked at blurring the edges between the material and immaterial in his paintings. Death of the Bohemian shows his friend Hans Jaeger on his death bed surrounded by strange, hallucinatory figures, while Women Bathing is a riot of ghostly superimposed faces and bodies. Screening in a neighbouring room is Munch’s amateur attempts at filmmaking—the short, just over five minutes in length, is more snippets than ‘film’, showing, through frail patchy images, bustling street life in Oslo and Dresden. Rather than cinematic awe, you are struck with a sense of Heideggerian temporality, of how the work captures a particular time and place that is magically transported to the present. This ardent documentation spilled over in Munch’s paintings of everyday life in Norway, where he returned in 1908 after many years away in Paris and Berlin. The image of people shovelling snow became a metaphor for the struggle of everyday life, while fires that periodically tore through the poorer districts of Kristiania, where he lived, held a special grip on his imagination. Particularly poignant is Panic in Oslo, a woodcut that captures the ragged disorder of a city in flames.
A small part of the exhibition is devoted to a series of paintings and sketches that Munch made after he suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye. Fascinated by the subjective nature of vision, he documented what he could see with his damaged eye—landscapes or interiors obscured by large blotches of dark paint, depicting how the wound encroached on his sight, and pulsating circles of colours, rather like Raza’s bindus, probably caused by exposing his eye to bright light.
The debilitation of his body forms an increasingly predominant theme in the latter part of the show, with images of sickness, physical decline and isolation. In Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, Munch shows himself seated on a chair in a dressing gown with his features almost erased, as if to suggest the closeness of death. The Night Wanderer is a striking portrait of a gaunt, suffering figure walking sleeplessly through the house at night. Near the exit, hung like a reminder of our own mortality, is Between the Clock and the Bed, where Munch places his fragile frame between the symbol of the inevitable passage of time and the place on which he expected to die.
While The Scream might not be part of the exhibition, it can be found liberally scattered around Tate’s gift shop—on postcards and key chains, fridge magnets and T-shirts. It might be the world’s most iconic—perhaps clichéd—image of the stricken human of the modern age, yet its absence hangs heavy. Admittedly, the bulk of Munch’s work adds to our understanding of the artist behind this famous painting–for one, he deigns to smile in a single self-portrait–yet it becomes pertinent to see the image, to follow the traces of the painter’s gestures. To guess what he might have felt in that instant to have been able to pierce through to the heart of darkness.
Edvard Munch: A Modern Eye will show at the Tate Modern, London, till 14 October 2012