Warning: this exhibition is gloomy, dull and depressing

29 Jul

Edvard Munch was unfortunate to say the least.  He suffered from depression, alcoholism, agoraphobia and misogyny but I personally have a feeling that he was one of those people who perversely enjoy the afflictions that life in their paths.  There can be no doubt that he had a tragic life but this exhibition has a tragic start.  For me, his works don’t explore his torment in an artistic way.  Rather, his gloom and misery just emanate from the canvases and rub off on us.  The show (with walls painted in depressing Tate grey) doesn’t grab us immediately.

Munch, Red Virginia Creeper, 1898-1900. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Aesthetically, there’s an improvement from room two where both the works and the exhibition become slightly more vibrant.  This room looks at Munch’s fascination with repetition as many versions of his works exist.  In particular there are several versions of all his main compositions, some separated by as much as three decades.  Munch once said that ‘a great idea never dies’ and, rather than copy the works exactly, he created variants reinterpreting his initial ideas.  But, often the works weren’t good enough or the ideas strong enough to merit these constant re-workings.  Instead we are presented with one shoddily painted work after another obsessed with ideas of death and suffering.

Munch’s repetition. Own photograph.

The exhibition does make interesting light of his relationship with photography and film and his photography is used to guide us through the different sections of his artistic life.  As with the camera, Munch became addicted to cinematography (more than two thirds of the works here are photographs plus there are two films).  This understanding and experience helped refine his painterly skills and technique.  Entitled The Modern Eye, the exhibition aims to show that Munch was a modern thinker with modern concerns.  Fair enough, but he is certainly not a modernist which is one of the theses presented here.

Munch, Self Portrait Naked in the Garden at Asgardstrand, 1903. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

Munch’s oeuvre is very varied with limited progression and because of this he doesn’t always come off well as an artist. The absence of The Scream does force us to concentrate a bit more on the rest of his output.  I’m not convinced this is a good thing though.  Although multiple copies of it exist, it would have been practically impossible for Tate to organise a loan for the exhibition.  The Scream recently sold at Sotheby’s New York for £74 million after an incredible 12 minutes of telephone bidding.  It is one of the most famous paintings in art history although not that many people could name any of his other works.  To be fair, I’m not sure I could have done.  The anguish, however, of the screaming figure is omnipresent.

Munch’s The Scream sells at Sotheby’s.  Image via http://fineart.about.com

It is a bland show.  Maybe I shouldn’t have visited on a grey and rainy day or maybe it comes down, once again, to lighting levels that are slightly too low.  The catalogue, however, is brilliant and I’d recommend buying this rather than traipsing over to Tate Modern.  The first essay begins not with discussion of his origins and his birth but with the date of his death – death after all pervades everything that Munch did.  His sister died of consumption when she was only 15 and death and sickness haunt the majority of his works.  Six versions exist of The Sick Child – through this reinvestigation Munch was perhaps able to experience a sense of cathartic release.

Munch, The Sick Child, 1907. Image via www.guardian.co.uk

The exhibition begins and ends with his self-portraits.  Those in the final room are perhaps the most powerful works in the whole exhibition, following Munch’s self-destruction and the terrifying course of his own dark despair.  Munch had always had a poorly sighted left eye and, in 1930, he suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye.  Rather than consider this a reason to stop painting, he focussed (!) on painting the progression of the haemorrhage; the blind spot in his vision meant that he was able to dedicate himself completely to ill health and the subjectivity of his vision as his sight became further confused and images blurred.

Visitors to the Munch exhibition. Own photograph.

In 2005, the Royal Academy mounted a show of Munch’s self-portraits but few are held in public collections in the UK.  Tate doesn’t seek to engage with Munch’s key works, nor is this a retrospective exhibition.  Instead, it has been designed to illustrate the curators’ arguments and theses.  This is not an exhibition that is meant to be palatable to the public but to art historians with a strong interest in Munch – a narrow window indeed when you consider the gloomy outpourings of this depressive and one that I think is far too limited.  This isn’t normally a problem we encounter with Tate.  Such an institution should be seeking to engage more actively with all its public in a more inclusive way.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at Tate Modern until 14th October 2012, www.tate.org.uk.

14 Responses to “Warning: this exhibition is gloomy, dull and depressing”

  1. Molecules of Emotion July 29, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

    Having read your article, I want to see this exhibition even more. Just to see if Munch’s work truly makes a reflection of his many health problems. Though I have never met anyone who “perversely” enjoy their mental illness, doesn’t mean there aren’t any around. You have raised an interesting point, does clinical depression make depressing art and artists?

    • chloenelkin July 30, 2012 at 8:42 am #

      I look forward to hearing what you think when you’ve been. Please don’t think I mean this as a generalisation though as many depressed artists produce work that is not at all depressing for those viewing it. I think the point I’m raising is quite specific to Munch although there may well be other examples around.

  2. The Exhibition List July 30, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    Luckily I’ll be back in London to see this, your blog also makes me want to see it more! Some of Munch’s colour work intrigues me and I often respond to gloomy by feeling happier so will have to see. Although I find LS Lowry’s work makes me feel miserable.
    Perhaps a strong coffee and sunshine would have helped!

    • chloenelkin July 30, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      Yes I think that’s very true. It is funny how different people respond to different works though – personally, I adore Lowry’s works. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of the Munch now and seeing the effect it has on you. Thanks, as ever, for reading.

  3. Art & Aesthetics Society August 6, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    thank you for this review, im glad i did not go to see it and i can completely sympathise with what you say about the tate.

  4. Kunst Review August 6, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    ah the comment above was meant to be from this blog instead! i hope you will visit and comment

    • chloenelkin August 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

      I’ll make sure to have a read of your blog later on and thanks so much for reading this. I’m glad your enjoying Artista.

  5. Shane James Bordas August 19, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    This is a superb exhibition, exploring Much’s constant reevaluation of his images along with his dalliances in photography and film. Throughout, it showcases his unique and unflinching perspective.

    Although there are a few well known pieces, admittedly this isn’t the show to go to if you just want to see the ‘hits’. If that’s all you’re looking for, then you would be better off fast-tracking it to the gift shop, or, simpler still, sitting at home and reading Wiki instead.

    However, if you’re prepared to have your eyes skinned (to paraphrase Joyce Carey), I’d urge all interested parties to discover the work for themselves and not to be put off by this rather glib and misguided review.

    • chloenelkin August 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      Many thanks for your comment and for reading the blog. I think it’s important to remember that all opinions are subjective. Just because I didn’t enjoy this exhibition it doesn’t meant that my opinions are glib and misguided. However, I am pleased you enjoyed the show and maybe we’ll agree at some point in the future.

  6. El October 22, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    i really like this photos, art is something like trying to catch your soul and it hapens only once 🙂

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