01 SEPTEMBER 2012 | RICHARD ELLIOTT
In May of this year, a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream became the most expensive artwork sold at auction, after it was bought for $119.9m (£76.4m) by New York financier Leon Black. The 1895 pastel is the only one of the four versions – the other three are in Oslo museums – to include a poem explaining the inspiration for the work. It reads: “I was walking along a path 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.”
The work has become an icon of existential angst, contributing to the popular image of Munch as a tortured artist, a man heroically mining his inner turmoil to create art. However, Nicholas Cullinan, curator of Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern in London, argues that Munch’s work is about much more than morbid introspection, and actually reflects a deep engagement with the cultural and technological developments of his era.
The first exhibit called upon by Cullinan in his revisionist argument is Self Portrait (1895). The skeletal arm at the bottom of the picture is claimed to reveal not only an early obsession with death, but also an interest in the recent discovery of X-rays. A related field, photography, is shown to have had a profound influence on Munch’s work, and two rooms in the exhibition are dedicated to his photographs. Munch appeared to enjoy the expressive effect of photographic distortions, and later used such effects in his paintings. Some of the photographs contain ghost-like images resulting from multiple exposures, a phenomenon aped in the transparent killer in the foreground of the striking Murder on the Road (1919).
Moving into the 20th century, the advent of film proved an important development for much of Munch’s later work. The static figures of his early paintings are replaced by people in motion, often stepping towards the viewer as if about to emerge into the room, or indeed burst from the canvas, as in the most dramatic of such paintings, Galloping Horse (1912). In a series of paintings from the 1930s, Munch portrayed a real-life incident from 1905 where an argument with two other artists ended in him aiming a rifle at them. The manner in which he recasts this troubling episode is strongly influenced by slapstick cinema.
In 1908, while living in Berlin, Munch suffered a nervous breakdown, and in 1909 he returned to Norway. Despite living in relative seclusion, he created several works that responded to local, national and international events. Panic in Oslo (1917) depicts unrest over food shortages, while other images chronicle mass executions during the civil war in Finland in the last months of the First World War.
In 1930, a haemorrhage in Munch’s right eye caused him to see strange shapes and colours. He documented these distortions in paintings and drawings, some of which are collected in a room as evidence of Munch’s scientific interest in vision.
Early in the exhibition, Cullinan tells us that one of the commandments of Hans Jaeger, leader of Kristiania’s bohemian milieu in the 1880s of which Munch was a part, was: “Thou shalt write thy life”. Munch, it seems, remained faithful to the motto.
The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Munch exhibition, Graphic Works from the Gunderson Collection, is a much more modest affair in both scale and narrative. The picture of Munch that emerges from the 60 lithographs and woodcuts is far from the engaged, modern man proposed by Cullinan. Instead, we get the more familiar isolated figure, traumatised by the premature deaths of his mother (aged 30) and sister (aged 15).
If the Edinburgh collection lacks anything as vibrant as The Girls on the Bridge (pictured, left) (1927) or The Yellow Log (1912), it does have some advantages over its London counterpart. There are three wonderful prints of the hypnotically beautiful Madonna (pictured, above) (1895), as well as a rare, hand-coloured lithographic version of The Scream. Moreover, in seeing the images from Munch’s paintings reduced to their simplest terms, we get a clearer picture of Munch the Symbolist (see, for example, Kiss IV (1902) or Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones. (1899)).
Whether Munch was an engaged modern or a hermetic misery, I came away from these exhibitions certain that I had encountered a special mind.
- Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye continues at Tate Modern, London, until 14 October
- Edvard Munch: Graphic Works from the Gunderson Collection continues at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 23 September