Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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1 Comment

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

     /  July 22, 2019

    Do you think the layout was made trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical and sexually anxious intentionally, to help viewers understand Munch better?

    Reply

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