The British Museum’s major exhibition featuring the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is nothing less than sensational. It’s arguably London’s best art show of the year.
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst focuses on Munch’s prints which have an incredible raw power and immediacy. It’s the largest exhibition of the artist’s prints to be seen in the UK for 45 years.
The raw human emotions in Munch’s art works make them feel as powerful today as when they were first created. From love and desire, to jealousy, loneliness, anxiety and grief, all human emotion is captured in the great man’s works.
A major highlight of the exhibition is Munch’s ‘The Scream’, one of the most iconic images in art history. It’s an image that most people recognise instantly, even if they don’t know the name of the artist.
The rare lithograph in black and white was created by Munch following a painted version and two drawings of the same image. But the print has a real power in its bold black imagery and wavy lines.
It was this black and white print which was circulated widely during Munch’s lifetime and made him famous. Few copies survive and this is the first time any version of ‘The Scream’ has been on show in the UK for a decade.
Despite the image being on every type of merchandise from towels to T-shirts, it has lost none of its impact. Seeing it ‘in the flesh’, beautifully lit in a darkened gallery room, is an intense and wonderful experience.
Pretty much all the works in this exhibition are showstoppers, especially Munch’s images of women. Munch was renowned as a great lover of women and something of a womaniser. His work not only demonstrates his passion for the opposite sex, but also his fear of them.
Munch lived at a time when a sexual revolution was taking place and he was fascinated, but unsettled, by the independent women around him.
Highlights of the show include ‘Vampire II’ which Munch considered to be one of his most elaborate and technically accomplished prints.
A woman’s hair falls across her lover, shrouding him as their bodies become tangled and intertwined. Its powerful swirling imagery conveys eroticism and female power.
Another fantastic work focusing on the sexual power of women is Munch’s controversial ‘Madonna’ with its heavily sexualised female figure with dark tones and the deepest of scarlet reds.
This erotic image also features an explicit depiction of swimming sperm and a foetus which led to outrage and huge controversy at the time it was painted.
‘Head by Head’ is a stunning print representing the complex relationship between a man and a woman. The woman is portrayed by Munch as almost predatory which gives us an insight into the artist’s confused relationship with the opposite sex.
“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.” – Edvard Munch
Munch lived at a key turning point in artistic history, after the Romanticism of 19th Century art but before modernism took hold.
The show reveals how Munch’s artistic vision was shaped by the radical ideas of his time – in art, literature, science and theatre. Munch was heavily influenced by contemporary ideas, thinkers and artists including Max Klinger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen.
Munch’s most important works were created largely from the 1890s to the end of the First World War. This period coincided with a great period of societal change in Europe.
Munch was exposed to changes in society through his extensive travels across the continent by rail and his time spent working in Paris, Berlin and Oslo. There’s a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps in the exhibition which give a flavour of Munch’s many journeys.
Kristiania (Oslo), Paris and Berlin exerted a huge influence on Munch as he rubbed shoulders with the leading painters and thinkers of the day. Psychoanalysis was a big talking point – after all, this was the era of Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology.
Art was also experiencing a major revolution. French painters including Gauguin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat were all important influences on his work. But Munch was also his own man – and it’s easy to see the early roots of German Expressionism and modernist styles in his work.
The Dark Side
One of the most revelatory aspects of this exhibition is the way it shows what life was like for Munch in his homeland in Norway. Sometimes he felt isolated, but other times it benefited him to be an outsider, away from the vortex of Europe’s art scene.
Born in a farmhouse in the village of Ådalsbruk in Norway, Edvard Munch was the son of a priest. His family moved to Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1864 when he was a young child but much of his later childhood was overwhelmed by family death and illness.
His mother died of tuberculosis as did his sister, Sophie, at the age of 15. Another of his sisters was institutionalised with mental illness for most of her life . His only brother died of pneumonia at the age of 30. These tragedies weighed heavily on the lives of the surviving members of the Munch family.
The ill health and death of his beloved sister were to haunt Munch for the rest of his life… and his pain is palpable when you look closely at his many depictions of her on her sick bed.
It’s not surprising that Munch was plagued by suicidal thoughts. “I live with the dead – my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father… Kill yourself and then it’s over. Why live?”, he said.
Perhaps this is why Munch feared for his own sanity throughout his adult life. His pain and feelings of loss and loneliness are very much at the forefront in his art.
Edvard Munch’s own life was chaotic. He led a highly bohemian lifestyle and his romantic life was marked by difficult and complicated love affairs. He was renowned for his tumultuous relationships and self-destructive behaviour.
There were many fights, fall outs and quarrels. Munch’s erratic behavior resulted in a violent argument with another artist which led to an accidental shooting followed by an outpouring of bile, bitterness and self-loathing.
Life with Mr Munch was never boring, but it did take its toll in his mental health. “My condition was verging on madness,” he once declared.
With the turmoil and unhappiness in Munch’s life, you might expect this exhibition to be grim viewing and a depressing experience.
But I found it strangely cathartic to see Munch’s intense emotions on canvas – in the same way I might look at Van Gogh’s paintings and reflect on his ‘troubled mind.’
Far from being depressing, I found this show full of energy and insights into Munch the man. His emotions leap off every print and drawing.
There’s also real beauty in many of his works as seen in his gorgeous portrait of ‘Eva Mudocci’ (see above).
Today Edvard Munch is regarded as one the greatest artists of the early 20th Century, a pioneer of modern art.
In 2012, Munch’s painting of “The Scream” sold at Sotheby’s in New York for more than £119 million – a record-breaking price. It’s ironic because Munch’s work was never about money.
All human life is captured with a true ferocity in Munch’s art… and there’s no better place to understand him and his emotions that in this exhibition. It’s a fantastic look inside the mind and works of one of the century’s true innovators.
Munch’s art came from his heart and soul… and it’s an intense but soulful experience to see his works up close and personal.
Munch @ The British Museum
The Edvard Munch: Love and Angst exhibition runs from 11 April – 21 July 2019 at the British Museum in London. There is an admission charge.
The nearest Tube station is Russell Square.