Edvard Munch: love and angst
‘No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love’Edvard Munch
11 April – 21 July 2019
Visiting Edvard Munch’s exhibition at the British Museum, for me went hand in hand with reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s book on the artist’s work, So Much Longing in so Little Space. It made me think about my response to Munch’s work and also about what art is and how it is connected to writing. In his exploration of Munch’s art, Knausgaard reveals a deep understanding of the Norwegian artist’s paintings and prints through a strong emotional connection and the analysis of his pictorial techniques as well as of the biographical and social contexts where Munch’s artwork was produced. His insightful, detailed descriptions and investigations are interestingly linked to the author’s own experience as a writer, an art critic and to his everyday life, therefore, to literature, to the origin of art and to its impact on life. In Knausgaard’s book, meditations arise and linger, questions are posed and are answered in part, leaving an open space to alternative interpretations, to more answers and more possible questions. His convoluted narration guides the reader in long well-crafted sentences that captivate attention alternating ordinary events, both in Munch’s and in the author’s life, and philosophical reasoning. This creates an osmosis between the artist and his work, as well as between Knausgaard and the reader or the viewer of Munch’s artwork.
The exhibition at the British Museum highlights Munch’s innovative skills in printmaking and his breaking with traditional pictorial schemes and techniques of Norwegian art that brought the artist to travel around Europe meeting the most important representatives of the artistic international movements of the time in Paris and in Berlin. Coming from a conservative religious family in Kristiania (today’s Oslo) he rebelled against his upbringing and joined the ideas of the bohemian circles of his hometown. They promoted free love and anarchic thoughts, exposing bourgeois hypocrisy and contradictions. Some of his friends were taken to court as their work was considered immoral. In a similar way, though Munch was recognised an artist at international level, some of his paintings shocked the public, such as ‘The sick child’ (1907), representing the death of his sister Sophie, or ‘Madonna’ (1902), where sperm and a foetus are painted at the border of the picture. The bohemians’ provocations and innovations were in line with the avant-garde movements multiplying in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a revolution in art and in culture that changed completely our vision of an artwork breaking with academies and opening it up to infinite possibilities in form, content and meaning. The rapid industrialisation, railways, cars and telegraph that made travelling and connections quicker and easier, and the two world wars, dramatically changed social structures and human lives. This caused optimism on the one hand, but also anxiety. This sense of loss, longing and despair is present throughout Munch’s work where love is desired and feared, death is an always present menace and life is a lonely journey.
Undoubtedly death was present in Edvard Munch’s life since his early childhood. Consumption, pulmonary tuberculosis, decimated people at the time. His mother Laura died when he was only five and his beloved elder sister Sophie passed away as well when he was thirteen. Another sister was mentally ill and his brother Andreas died of consumption as well. Only Edvard and his sister Inger lived till old age, though Edvard had had health problems throughout his life and his family, though his father was a diocesan priest, lived near to poverty sometimes.
His ‘Self-portrait with skeleton arm’ (1895) sets the mood at the beginning of the exhibition. The background is pitch black and a skeleton arm is positioned at the bottom. It reminds of the presence of symbols of death in Dutch still life of the 17th century, though the vivid colours celebrated life as well, such as a skull or an hourglass. But in Munch’s painting there is no joy in the facial expression and his head is cut out from the surroundings, isolated.
The sense of failure, lack of communication and fear of woman’s sexual demands are clearly expressed in works such as ‘Man’s head in woman’s hair’ (1896), ‘Attraction I’ (1896) and ‘Vampire II’ (1902). Woman’s hair is significantly highlighted, its dark net entraps men in its snare of unavoidable desire that sucks out man’s life and blood. It is a stereotypical interpretation of woman’s character that the artist made powerful in his bold lines and high contrasts of black and white and red and black. ‘Woman in three stages’ (1895) is another example of this view where womanhood is represented as innocence in a white dress, naked and sexually demanding in the central figure and old, dressed in black on the right side. A phallic symbol of the moon reflecting in water is on the left.
French contemporary artists, such as Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Odilon Redon, whose works are on display as well, influenced Munch’s style and themes, but he developed his unique approach always experimenting both in techniques and in the choice of the subjects. Instead of using one woodblock, he cut it in sections inking the pieces separately and then reassembling them in a sort of jigsaw technique that allowed him more freedom in the composition and more accuracy both in form and colours underlining the sense of isolation of the subjects.
This isolation is a recurrent theme we can find in ‘Separation II’ (1896), ‘Jealousy II’ (1896), ‘Moonlight I’ (1896) and ‘Two human beings, the lonely ones’ (1899). The subjects are lost and lonely, longing for a different present situation or a more hopeful future but at the same time their life is inseparable from the existing moment they experience in spite of the angst and uncertainties. Nevertheless, a sense of love surfaces and brings back some hope to the artist and to the viewer. It is art itself that gives this impulse, the possibility to express one’s feelings and make sense of such a loss of meaning in the ravaging of death and the hopelessness of human condition.
‘The Scream’ (1893), his most iconic picture, is the work that best synthesises and expresses all his emotions and achievements. There are several versions of the pictures, as Munch used to reproduce his work several times probably to replace what he sold, in pastels and painting and in printed lithograph. It established Munch as an international artist and still today it is his trademark. It was depicted after a real experience the artist describes in his diary, probably near Kristiana, he ‘felt a large scream pass through nature’. Nature and art seem to coincide in the artist’s experience, in his emotions that are represented in the undulating lines, in the skull-like head, the oval mouth, the terrified eyes; everything reverberates the panic in unison. But panic for what? This seems unidentified, it is a general sensation of fear for the uncertainty of human condition doomed to death and irredeemably lonely. As Knausgaard claims, it is an intuition, ‘the feeling of the moment’ that matters in ‘The Scream’.
In 1908 Edvard Munch had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised in Copenhagen. Going back home, he spent the rest of his life in Ekely, an estate near Kristiania, where he continued his work till his death in 1944, aged eighty. His experimentation in printmaking became more and more sophisticated and his themes changed in part focusing on more conventional subjects of ordinary life and on the Norwegian landscape without diminishing the quality of his unique renditions. The last works displayed at the exhibition, ‘Towards the forest’ (1915) and ‘The girls on the bridge’ (1918), reveal a quieter mood, a more relaxed hand, a tendency to rely on others, to walk together in spite of incongruities, differences and misunderstandings. The figures are depicted close, embracing each other, almost merging.
Knausgaard’s analysis highlights all the themes well explained at the exhibition emphasising the importance of Munch’s less known paintings of his early period where his artistic endless exploration of the world around him was already present. Looking for perfection and yet in an unfinished process, his artwork is situated among the modern great works of art made by artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet and Cézanne. His acute sensitivity certainly contributed to the distance he put between himself and people or objects, which resulted in a direct and objective vision and in his total and solitary dedication to art. He wished to express what was ‘true’ to him in the context of the time and space he lived in. Ibsen and Dostoevsky are the authors Knausgaard frequently mentions referring to Munch, the playwright for his breaking with bourgeois conventions, and the Russian writer for his brutal, essential descriptions of the world.
Munch speaks to us powerfully because we still have something in common with his work. His ability was in the capacity to transfer what he felt into a painting giving form and colour to his emotions, as all the great artists do, and making it our emotions, our feelings, creating a world that we understand and acknowledge as our world. We still feel angst, panic, alienation and love, death is the inevitable end of our life and Munch’s artwork makes us experience this. These concepts are recognised as universally human and art, in its process of exploration and transformation, searches and creates them in forms. It is a becoming that temporarily shapes our world in a ‘zone of proximity’, as Deleuze claims – the incomplete in Munch’s work – that makes the painting alive in its ‘not-yet-closedness’, as Knausgaard remarks.
In our everyday experience where routines mix with threatening climate changes, desperate immigration, overwhelming wars, terrorist attacks and shootings, Munch’s work still finds relevance in our present day.