On Edvard Munch's Modern Eye...
The Girls on the Bridge 1927 Munch Museum © Munch Museum/Munch-EllingsendGroup/DACS 2012
Few would need convincing that Edvard Munch was adept at transferring anguish and anxiety onto a canvas. In 2010, Danish documentary maker Michael Madsen made Into Eternity, which documents the disposal of vast quantities of nuclear waste in underground tunnels. Once full, these chambers must remain sealed for 100,000 years. Contemplating how to ensure future civilisations – whatever their language – leave well alone, in one memorable scene the project planners consider plastering images of Munch’s The Scream at the site’s entrance as a symbol of universal horror.
If that’s not a testament to the power of Munch’s work, I don’t know what is. As has been well documented, however, The Scream doesn’t feature in Tate’s retrospective in any of its multiple versions, and the prerogative of this show is not to find ‘the universal’ in Munch’s work, but ‘the modern’. In one sense, this large selection of paintings, photographs and models (much of which made post-1900) casts Munch as an artist whose work reflects or, better, compliments our understanding and perceptions of modernity rather well.
His striking 1915 painting The Workers on Their Way Home, with its lifeless faces and ill-formed mass, speaks of the dehumanising effects of industrialisation. It had me thinking of T.S. Eliot’s lifeless crowd flowing over London Bridge in The Waste Land (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’), and perhaps too, harrowing photographs of Holocaust victims.
Indeed, photography, or Munch’s love of photography, triggered by his purchase of a camera in Berlin in 1902, is one of the exhibition’s most significant revelations. Initially, that there is more than one room dedicated to his snapshots – many of which are self-portraits in various poses, including an uncannily familiar take on the arms-length self-portrait propagated by camera phones – might seem disappointing.
Self-Portrait with Hat (Right Profile) at Ekely 1931 © Munch Museum
But photography is a medium in which happy accidents carry a unique power – think of faulty exposures that ‘reveal’ ghostly apparitions, or unexpected figures captured in a picture’s corner (even, as in Antonioni’s seminal 1966 film Blow-Up, a hidden dead body). The more time I spend in this exhibition, the more parallels present themselves – the particular creepiness of the circling wraiths in The Death of the Bohemian is exactly that of these accidental, photographic ghosts.
Beyond their otherworldliness, it is also these unintended features that pique our curiosity in a photograph – what Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida termed a photograph’s punctum; that which ‘pierces the viewer’ and sticks in their mind, and is often not the photograph’s deliberate focus. Whether or not Munch was conscious of this is impossible to tell, but his post-1900 paintings were heavily influenced by his new interest in photography and seem to suggest he embraced its potent combination of the precise, the objective and the uncannily imperfect.
Thus we find characters awkwardly positioned at canvas edges, in strange poses, sometimes in focus – sometimes out. Murder on the Road, from 1919, catches a man (a murderer?) escaping off-lens. There’s a man in a similar position in the very weird Red Virginia Creeper, caught looking startled (and distinctly un-posed). It is that expression that stuck with me (the punctum, if you like) rather than the conspicuous red house that takes centre stage behind him – the picture’s superficial ‘focus’.
Modernism and modernity are of course, not interchangeable terms, but we might think of the first as an attempt to represent the latter. This show is adept at identifying various ‘modernisms’ apparent in Munch’s work; one room (‘Dematerialisation’) suggests the influence he took from scientific breakthroughs, and reveals the particular meeting between hard reality and spiritual vagueness in many of his paintings (The Sun, below, for example).
The Sun 1910–13 © Munch Museum/Munch-EllingsendGroup/DACS 2012
In another room, one learns that much of his later work benefited from developments in communication technologies, as he turned to depicting events reported in newspapers and magazines following his voluntary seclusion.
But for me, it is what goes on beneath the surface that makes Munch an artist of modernity. The second room, dedicated to his reworking of certain themes over time, features two versions of Vampire, an image that is also the jacket cover to my copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s nothing significant in that of itself, but consider that Stoker’s text is seen to evidence both the anxieties of fin-de-siècle society, and (subconsciously) those of its author. The two works seem a perfect pair. It is when viewed in this era that Dracula yields its subconscious meaning and true value as a text that jars hard against its time. So too, in retrospect, does Munch emerge as an entirely engrossing painter of modern life.
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