More about Munch

More about Munch

More about Munch

While Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is often seen as a 19th century Symbolist painter, his body of work shows how modernity and life outside his studio inspired him. Tejshvi Jain revisits the artist’s world.

Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel painting, ‘The Scream’, made headlines a few months ago by being the most expensive art work sold so far at US $119.9 million. What makes his work so desirable? While this is his most iconic work, are there more of such works depicting alienation and torment?

Did Munch only paint or did he experiment with other medias like photography and lithographic printing techniques? Did he paint only from the memory of episodes that occurred in his life, or did he look outwards, to the world around him?

An ongoing exhibition, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, curated by Nicholas Cullinan and on display at the Tate Modern in London until October 14, 2012, casts new light on this Norwegian artist.

As the editors of the exhibition catalogue, Angela Lampe and Clement Cheroux, point out, “Munch is generally considered a 19th century artist, a symbolist or proto-expressionist, who more readily find his place in the chronology of art alongside Vincent Van Gough and Paul Gauguin. This exhibition is centered on his work after 1900.

Earlier retrospectives showcase his works of the 1890s. This exhibition aims to show that Munch was also very much a 20th century painter.” The exhibition highlights Munch’s constant engagement with photography, film and theatre along with his responses to questions and inquires into perception, space and compositional structure.

The exhibition is divided into themes and theories exploring various aspects of Munch’s modernity and focusing on the painter’s production during the 20th century, a topic earlier explored by Dieter Buchhart for the 2007 Basel exhibition. The exhibition opens with a room of Munch’s self-portraits spanning a period of almost five decades.

These works demonstrate his engagement with oil paintings, lithography, woodblock printing, photography and even film. While his earlier portraits show his high technical skills, his later ones are intense and attempt to capture his emotional and mental state.

Munch is known for revisiting his ‘themes’ as an attempt to heal him of the incident while capturing the true emotional intensity of the moment. By facing an earlier version opposite a latter version of the same theme (‘Sick Child’, ‘Vampire’, ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Kiss’ to name a few) the exhibition allows viewers to compare and draw their own conclusions of Munch’s artistic and psychological process.

‘Sick Child’, a painting that draws upon traumatic memories of his sister’s death from tuberculosis when he was 13, has six versions of which two (painted in 1907 and 1925) are part of the exhibition. As pointed out by Clarke, Munch, in one of his letters to the museum director Jens Thiis of the National Gallery, Oslo, presents his repetitions of the ‘Sick Child’ as part of an ‘open work’ process.

The response to capture the moment is not resolved with a single painting. By revisiting and reworking on his themes, he also puts forth questions of originality in an age where reproducibility of images are made possible with technological developments in printing techniques of the 20th century.

Work with camera

Munch, like other painters of his generation, took to amateur photography at the turn of the century. Photography seems to have provided Munch with a new way to record and scrutinise his own life. The focal length of cameras used in Munch’s times would distort the space, making the foreground big and background quickly receding in space.

Munch enjoyed this distortion, which is evident in not just his unusually large body of photographs, but in many of his paintings also. Apart from some images of places of importance to him, he predominantly created self-portraits, usually in profile or a three quarters angle.

It seems that Munch used the pictorial process of self-portrait as a way of exploring and understanding situations or circumstances that particularly affected him. He was also fond of blurs and multiple exposures.

The resulting photograph with faded semi-transparent ghostly images resonate his fascination with the material and the immaterial, as seen in ‘Self Portrait with Rosa Meissner on the Beach in Warnemunde II’.

One of the key distinguishing characters in Munch’s paintings is the unusual handling of space. In many instances, his compositions rest on one or two diagonal lines, heightening the perspective.

In ‘Workers On Their Way Home’, he creates the illusion of figures moving towards the spectator by the use of diagonal lines and prominent foreground with figures cut off by the frame.

This visual scheme can be traced to the 20th century illustrated press and cinema. Along with his unusual handling of space, his fascination for urban life is captured in the five-minute-long film.
Tryst with theatre

Munch did not limit himself to only responding to technological developments or his memory of intimate episodes in his life. His collaboration with director Max Reinhardt on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, reflects his involvement with theatre.

Along with providing sketches for the furniture and décor, he made a series of paintings depicting scenes from the play that would help the actors develop their understanding of their roles.

The series of paintings he produced during this time, collectively known as The Green Room series, forms part of the exhibition. Each is set in a similar, green wallpapered room with items of furniture placed like props, in which dramatic scenes are played out.

While Munch is known for depicting the torments of his angst-ridden soul, the exhibition brings out his engagement with the wider world. He followed political debates as much as artistic ones, and was often moved by news items that dominated the headlines. His keen interest in scientific developments led to the creation of a substantial body of work, reflecting his responses to the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and wireless telegraphic waves.

The exhibition comes as a full circle. It starts with his self-portraits and ends with yet another body of self-portraits done after 1908. This intense lifetime preoccupation with his persona results in the creation of 70 self-portraits, 20 prints and over a hundred drawings, watercolours and sketches.

His main interest was not in depicting his external appearance but in exploring and investigating his own self. In ‘Self- Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940-43’, he places his now fragile body between symbols of time (clock) and death (bed upon which he could expect to die) as a metaphoric reflection of his present reality.

Munch never stopped searching, as he made his way on his journey through life. He was in tune with his times and this is reflected in his works and is brought out through this exhibition.