tue 23/07/2024

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, British Museum review - compassion in the age of anxiety | reviews, news & interviews

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, British Museum review - compassion in the age of anxiety

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, British Museum review - compassion in the age of anxiety

Norway's greatest painter revealed as a master printmaker

Munch’s The Scream is as piercing as it has ever been, and its silence does nothing to lessen its viscerally devastating effect. It was painted in 1893, but it was a lithograph produced two years later – now the star of the biggest UK exhibition of Munch’s prints for a generation – that would make it famous.

Munch's now rare black and white lithograph includes an inscription, which translated from the German reads: “I felt a large scream pass through nature”. Perhaps by spelling out the true subject of The Scream it gilds the lily, but in conveying the agony of empathy it offers an interpretative key to his entire output.

The Scream 1895, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas WiderbergThe nuances of suffering are here in all their shades: love and angst, certainly, but grief and loss, jealousy and loneliness are lived and reproduced in us as we look. For all Munch’s agonised introspection, the sharing of experience is integral to the peculiar potency of his work. If The Scream (Pictured right) describes the sensations of witnessing another’s pain, then this is also the nature of our transaction with Munch when we look at his work. He relies upon our compassion, and in doing so surely reveals a surprisingly optimistic faith in human nature.

For all that, there’s not much here to be optimistic about, and his explorations of the bonds of love pulse with the anticipation of loss. Munch took up printmaking a decade or so after he began painting, partly perhaps, because he saw a better prospect of making money this way. That aside, his early aptitude, and his innovative approach show his affinity with the medium, which suited his habit of returning again and again to certain subjects.

One such subject is The Kiss: by 1902 the entwined male and female figures had been reduced to an emblem, printed in black over a grey toning block. The simplification of the image does nothing to reduce its emotional force: on the contrary, the use of an uncut toning block to transfer only the grain of the wood to the page has a remarkable effect. The couple’s bond is made permanent, and yet this brings no comfort: trapped within the fibre of the tree they are helpless.

Fatalism stalked Munch: both his mother and sister had died from tuberculosis, and in 1926 his sister Laura, who had been afflicted with a form of schizophrenia since adolescence, died of cancer. Munch was convinced that both tuberculosis and mental illness were hereditary, and he wrote: “Disease and Insanity and Death were the black Angels that stood by my Cradle”.

Nothing occupied Munch quite like his dread of women, however. Munch’s own difficult experiences of love inform his work to the extent that his patron, Harry Kessler, said: “More than anything he is a depicter of women.” Fascination is counterweighted by fear, with women in their prime depicted as awesome and sexually voracious creatures.

Madonna, 1895/1902. Edvard Munch (1863-1944), MunchmuseetSummer Night: the Voice, 1894, one of the earliest images from the Frieze of Life series produced by Munch in the 1890s and beyond, is associated with his first serious love affair. Its subject, Milly Thaulow, is simultaneously girlish and otherworldly. Her face described in radiating circles, she is an emanation so brilliant that the moon reflected in the water beyond is a dull glow in comparison. Remote and unreachable, she might slip away into the forested half-light at any moment.

Female power is sexual and overwhelming: in a repurposing of the three ages of man, a woman in mid-life thrusts her body towards us, her limbs outstretched like a spider in its web. Men become entangled and sometimes consumed by female hair (Main picture), while in Madonna, 1895/1902 (Pictured above left), sperm swim decoratively around a border, like flies drawn unwittingly to a web.

The no doubt sensible view of the show’s curators is that hard drinking and free love did nothing to improve Munch’s state of mind. The artists and writers he encountered in his hometown of Kristiania while still in his twenties are portrayed in his disquieting etching Kristiania Bohemians, 1895. Jealousy, the toxic by-product of free love, seeps through it, its source the central, malign figure of artist Oda Lasson at one end of the table, or rather, perhaps, the bottle of wine, or schnapps, at the other.

If Munch’s personal relationships and chaotic way of life worsened his psychological distress, it is surely the case that even without the disruptive influence of this formative group of friends, growing up in Kristiania would have been discombobulating enough. The city’s systemic hypocrisy was exemplified by the co-existence of oppressive Lutheranism and a flourishing sex trade. Syphilis was a constant, looming threat: incurable, deadly and heritable, it seems likely to have been formative in Munch’s fatalistic outlook, and his obsessive fixation with “bad blood”.

Society’s hypocrisy, and the devastation caused by syphilis were topics explored by Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, and Munch’s friendships with Scandinavian artists and writers in Paris resulted in a new strand of work that forms the focus of the final part of the exhibition. Munch, along with Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard, designed programmes and stage sets for avant-garde theatre companies in Paris, providing an opportunity for Munch to explore his favoured themes with renewed focus. Seen in this broader context, Munch is less of an oddity, and we can see him as part of a widespread age of anxiety, as modernity collided with the divisive norms of 19th century society.

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