Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye

Modern inventiveness abounds, but can Munch escape his reputation for angsty introspection?

-James Piper

It has become impossible not to mention The Scream when talking about Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. This is precisely why an exhibition that relegates his most famous work to just a brief cameo is more than welcome. The key theme running through Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, is that there is much more to Munch than angsty introspection. True as that may be, there’s no escaping the deep sadness that permeates his work and this is the feeling that resonates long after leaving the gallery.

This exhibition seeks to recast Munch as an innovative, experimental artist of the 20th century, rather than the troubled and melancholic figure that often comes to mind, painting at the tail end of the nineteenth century. Showcasing his paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture and even film, The Modern Eye presents us with an artist caught up in the fresh, new and exciting ideas of the day.

Born in 1863, Munch was raised in Christiania, Norway’s capital city, later renamed Kristiania and then Oslo. After a rather bleak childhood, which saw him witness the deaths of both his mother and sister by tuberculosis, Munch spent his twenties mixing with a bohemian circle of writers and artists, sporadically taking off to Paris and Berlin in pursuit of creative enlightenment. However, a nervous breakdown in 1908 saw him return to Norway, by which point he had come to be seen as an important figure in the art world.

Munch’s paintings are the stuff of nightmares; gaunt and ghoulish faces glare at you from all sections of the canvas, expressions are obscured and exaggerated as they melt into the scenery, from which they seem almost inseparable. There is nothing to split subject and object. The surroundings in which Munch’s figures find themselves interminably trapped become merely an extension of their mood and, by association, the artist’s own emotional state. Munch’s paintings serve to signify himself.

But enough of the inner turmoil and intense self-examination. As heavy as this weighs on the exhibition, it isn’t the point being made here. Two rooms in the gallery are dedicated to Munch’s experimentations with photography, whilst one room showcases four short films made with a handheld Pathé-Baby film camera that he purchased when visiting Paris in 1927. Another room presents us with what are essentially elaborate set designs painted as part of a collaboration with theatre director Max Reinhardt, who at the time was working on a Berlin production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. The impression of Munch that this exhibition admirably, though unsubtly, tries to conjure is that of a restless and forward-thinking artist grappling with the modern world.

Restless no doubt, but the modern aspect is not so convincing. Although clearly inspired by developments in photography and film, the majority of the photographs on display portray the artist himself, invariably wearing his characteristic solemn expression. The four films combined last all of five minutes and suggest nothing more than a passing curiosity. Though they populate an entire room, the set design paintings seem to be distractions from what Munch really wanted to paint; sad figures with bowed heads, haunted by some private grief. Indeed, the six paintings of the Weeping Woman that immediately follow the The Green Room paintings depict just that.

Panic in Oslo, Munch’s response to the fears of shortages triggered by the trade blockade against Germany during the First World War, is placed in a section of the exhibition titled ‘The Outside World’. That this requires special mention is a testament to the fact that it’s the interior world that dominates here. Once you start to resist the curatorial nudges towards modernity and reflect on the subjective and personal qualities of the works, they begin to communicate something that very much comes from the heart. We’re back to inner-turmoil and self-examination.

On the surface, the abstract paintings that fill room 11 are almost Kandinsky-esque. However, when you learn that these vibrant and colorful experiments depict Munch’s distorted vision following a haemorrhage in his right eye, they are suddenly endowed with a tragic quality. In a way, this room encapsulates the overall effect of the exhibition. Experimentation and modernity give way to something more timeless and universal – personal anxiety.

This pathos reaches its climax in the final room. In Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed, painted towards the end of his life, Munch stands between a less than subtle reminder of his own mortality and the bed upon which he might die. Gaunt and ghoulish, he has become one of the figures of his earlier paintings. Or rather, the mask has been lifted. To the left of this painting lies the exit, through which you leave with a profound empathy for a man who was very much caught up in the artistic developments of his day, but was first and foremost caught up with something altogether more private.

2 Comments on “Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye”

  1. Cate Brunner says:

    Thanks for such a good article, Munch is one of my favourite artists, recently I read an interesting story about him –, and Liked him even more

  2. I believe this post , “Art: Edvard Munch, The Modern Eye London Scrawling”,
    incredibly enjoyable plus the blog post was indeed a good read.

    Thanks a lot-Brock

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