I commenced this blog some months ago with Munch’s The Scream. I now return to Munch, having just seen the current exhibition at Tate Modern.

The exhibition aims to present a fresh perspective on the artist and his work. The accompanying notes highlight the fact that we tend to associate Munch with ‘his images of alienation and sexual torment’, usually in the context of his work from the 1880s and 1890s. The current exhibition focuses on his later work, from the twentieth century, a much more productive period for the artist, and which presents Munch as a more ‘modern artist.’

The exhibition consists of 12 rooms, with themes including Medium as Muse (self-portraits), Reworkings (multiple versions of some images), Autobiography (exploring Munch’s interest in photography), as well as On Stage (paintings from Munch’s collaboration on a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts).

I was particularly intrigued by Munch’s reworkings. Although The Scream does not feature in this exhibition, Munch created at least four versions of the iconic image. So too with The Sick Child  and The Girls on the Bridge, two versions of each of which can be seen currently at Tate Modern. Reworkings were not unusual in Munch’s time. It is tempting, although perhaps fraught, to speculate that the act of repeatedly painting distressing memories, for example the death of Munch’s sister in The Sick Child, may have been therapeutic or cathartic. We will never know. Nonetheless, both versions of The Sick Child presented here capture an almost unbearable and claustrophobic sense of sadness and tragedy.

The spiritual and emotional angst and torment seen in Munch’s earlier images is also visible in this later selection, for example in Red Virginia Creeper, the six paintings that constitute Weeping Woman, as well as Death Room and Jealousy. Munch believed that he ‘came frightened into the world’, and that ‘disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle’ (Sue Prideaux. Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2005). His work, through gesture and silent lines, reflects this, a life overshadowed by mental anguish and suffering.

The smudged faces in The Murdress, The Artist and His Model, Man and Woman are as haunting as the penetrating eyes in Red Virginia Creeper, Thorval Lochen and Workers on Their Way Home.

The vibrancy of the colours in much of Munch’s work – for example, New Snow in the Avenue and The Yellow Log (David Hockney comes to mind) – does not undermine the gravity of the content.

Munch had a breakdown in 1908, and the exhibition notes suggest that he then entered a more settled phase. I am not so sure. He once wrote:

‘When misfortune occurs some people hoist all the sails. They can be called those with an heroic nature. Others yield to experience and are marked to it. They can, roughly speaking, be called the walking wounded.’ (Sue Prideaux. Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2005)

The exhibition does present a fresh perspective of Munch, particularly in terms of the artist as photographer and film maker.

However, much of the emotional content and impact of his earlier paintings continue in this later selection. The ‘Unflinching Gaze’ of Munch’s self-portraits, most notably his final one, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed, leave little doubt in this viewer’s mind that the artist continued to expressed himself on canvas as one of the walking wounded….

CQ

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