Modern inventiveness abounds, but can Munch escape his reputation for angsty introspection?
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.
Mental problems, minimalism and psychedelic drugs: Yayoi Kusama explores our obsession with the self
I really liked it. But I am easy to please, and the Tate rarely disappoints. Visually, I liked the show. And in terms of yet another lesson in history of art, I liked it. I feel like I learnt something: I thought that, as an artist, Yayoi Kusama was victimised. Victimised into being a woman and being crazy and obsessive – that is what I was taught at university – and every single review of this exhibit does use the words compulsive and obsessive either together or separately (always be cautious of those two words when used in any relation to a female or womanhood in general) – and, also, during my walk around the exhibition space, I did overhear someone saying ‘I know she has mental problems… that’s probably the biggest influence.’
But hey-ho. The lady who came up with that (and it does make it worse that it was said in a very matter-of-fact, almost indifferent, tone of voice), was clearly missing the obvious. I know not everyone in London can read but I do assume that the target audience of the show are all literate people, and thankfully, at the Tate, they are so generous with the information, it’s like wowza I need to write this down so that I remember and I can quote it to someone as I would have just thought of it myself when I went to see this exhibition, I just got it, what a great artist, I just got it by looking at her work.
Anyway, lady, you get a blurb per room. That is fourteen rooms. Fourteen chances to get it right. And then you get the artwork. The text is just there to acknowledge that no matter how upper middle class your social status is, your talent might not be abstract thinking. And that is where you missed your chance. Tate’s exhibition does not focus on Kusama as a bunny boiler crazy woman. It is a retrospective of the work of an artist, who constantly and continuously stages herself as a character in a fucked-up society that is also beautiful, and ever-changing, and challenging to live in.