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.