Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye

Later works, photographic ones in particular, redefine the creator of The Scream as a 20th-century artist, observes Alex Danchev

June 28, 2012

 



Credit: Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed 1940-43 © Munch Museum/DACS 2012


Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye

Tate Modern, until 14 October

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye

Edited by Angela Lampe and Clement Cheroux

Tate, 320pp, £40.00 and £29.99

ISBN 9781849760232 and 60584

What do we know about Edvard Munch (1863-1944)? We know that he was the creator of The Scream, or rather The Screams (1893 et seq.), four in total, one of which was auctioned at Sotheby’s last month for the stupendous sum of $120 million (£76 million), a world record for a work of art at auction, a sum all the more mind-boggling for its being in pastel rather than oil. The auction result seemed somehow to certify - among the 1 per cent perhaps to sanctify - the status of that image as an icon of angst and anomie. It was as if the artist had offered us a vision (or a hallucination) of the human condition under Modernism.

The version sold at Sotheby’s is the only one that incorporates Munch’s poem, or notes in verse, written in his own hand, on which the vision was based:

“I was walking along the road with two Friends/The Sun was setting - The Sky turned a bloody red/And I felt a whiff of Melancholy - I stood/Still, deathly tired - over the blue-black/Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire/My Friends walked on - I remained behind -/Shivering with Anxiety - and I felt the great Scream in Nature.”

After Munch, as one might say, the scream is ubiquitous, a little like the Heart of Darkness (a contemporaneous creation). Earlier this year, Sotheby’s sold a screenprint - a screamprint - by Andy Warhol, The Scream (After Munch) (1984): iconisation spiced with ironisation in the Warhol way. The vision seeped into the culture. “In space no one can hear you scream” sounds like one of the artist’s obiter dicta (“A good painting with ten holes is better to have than ten poor paintings without holes”), but it is the tag line from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). There is perhaps a strain of schlock horror in Munch, cunningly exploited in Wes Craven’s film series Scream (1996-2011).

Whether the high colour of the paintings can be made to square with the rather different palette of the film noir is a moot point, but it is tempting to think that the latest offerings from Scandinavia pay a kind of homage to their tortured predecessor. Existentially speaking, The Bridge is The Scream with a narrative arc, a dash of sex and a pinch of police procedural.

Replication, appropriation and commodification might suggest the makings of a modern Munch, even a postmodern Munch. That should be music to the ears of the organisers of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, whose project is to justify a shift in his own narrative arc, such that he is redefined as a 20th-century rather than a 19th-century artist - in a word, a Modernist rather than a Symbolist, a Post-Impressionist or a Proto-Expressionist. Munch, they point out, expired in the same year as Kandinsky and Mondrian. The implication is clear: he should be considered in the same league, if not the same breath. He is not to be seen as a poor man’s van Gogh, as one who kept his ears but lost his senses; nor as the Gauguin of the North, awash in dissipated exoticism. On this account, Munch was absolutely modern. The message is rammed home in the catalogue (which sometimes reads like a series of draft translations: “Yet he only ever exhibited just a few of these self-interrogations.”). In the concluding essay Iris Müller-Westermann recycles parts of her earlier work on Munch by Himself: “What he found out about himself and in himself was not a clearly defined persona, but endless different facets and fragments of his own self. Munch’s self-portraits convey an image of a modern person, for whom stereotypes and traditional frameworks have become obsolete and who constantly has to struggle to establish new certainties. All his life, Edvard Munch was a modern spirit with a modern gaze.”

The focus is on the second half of his life, the work after 1900. Munch himself spoke in these terms. “The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright. My path has led me along the edge of a precipice, a bottomless pit. I have had to jump from stone to stone. From time to time I’ve tried to get away from the path, thrown myself into the throng of life among people. But every time I’ve had to go back to the path along the cliff top. It is my way, which I must follow till I plunge into the depths. Anxiety about life has followed me since my mind became aware. My art has been personal confession. It has been like the radio telegraphist’s warning telegrams from the sinking ship. Yet I have the feeling that this anxiety is necessary for me, as is sickness. Without this fear of life and without illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder.”

Munch is a casebook of confessions and obsessions. The curators take their cue from this. Surprisingly perhaps, they are not much interested in his afterlife. They concentrate instead on enlarging what we know of the media and modus operandi of his practice, in autobiographical frame. Some of the most arresting images in the exhibition are not paintings but photographs, often self-portraits, taken with a hand-held camera, at arm’s length, as if to anticipate the quotidian narcissism of the mobile phone.

Munch began to take photographs in 1902, with an ordinary amateur box camera, a Kodak Bull’s-Eye No. 2. He used this until 1910. He then stopped taking photographs for 16 years. In 1926, his interest revived. He bought himself a new Kodak Vest Pocket (only 2.5cm in thickness when folded), and the following year a small Pathé Baby-Cine amateur film camera, with which he made four short films, in Dresden, Oslo and Aker, during the summer of 19: urban views, traffic and passers-by (this much familiar from the Lumière Cinématographe) but also landscapes, houses, portraits of loved ones, a skit and a self-portrait. As cameraman, his signature style is “gestural”, as Francois Albera puts it in the catalogue. Not for Munch the balanced compositions of the schools. His shots are as unstable as his psyche; or as driven; or as egocentric.

We now know a lot more about Edvard Munch. We know that he secured a lucrative source of income by taking a cut of the ticket sales for his exhibitions (in Dusseldorf in 1892, for example, a cut of one-third). We know that of all the images in the Munch Museum in Oslo - 1,100 canvases, 18,000 prints, 4,500 drawings and watercolours, six sculptures, 183 photographs and 92 sketchbooks - one in three depicts the artist himself. The Tate exhibition protests too much, with its monocular eye on his “modernity”. It succeeds almost in spite of itself in putting in question this self-styled anatomist of the human soul, with his bilious colour and his burdensome grief, his fascination with Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, his alchemical friendship with August Strindberg and his philosophical debt to Søren Kierkegaard.

All this requires further investigation. Meanwhile, we also have some anecdotes. This one may be as close to characteristic as it is possible to get. Sitting in the freezing cellar of his house, painting a portrait of his friend Dr Kristian Emil Schreiner, a real anatomist, Munch said: “Here we are, two anatomists sitting together, one an anatomist of the body and the other of the soul. I know full well that you would like to dissect me. But beware, I too have my scalpels.”

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