Etches at an Exhibition

Edvard Munch, Love and Angst (British Museum)

img_7864This is a slice of Edvard Munch’s career — one of my top five favourite Norwegian artists — between about 1890 and 1910, which perhaps doesn’t make sense without knowing the rest of his career. For a start, there is a Norwegian habit of repeating the same motif in a way I’ve not seen with other artists other than Picasso. Munch has several paintings of Puberty or The Vampire, for example, and this raises questions about whether he is obsessively exploring a theme, seeking out the perfect version, displaying artistic unity or exploiting the design for maximum revenue. Or all of the above.

There’s been a long history of artists producing prints of various kinds — mezzotints, etchings, woodcuts, linographs and so forth — to bring publicity and additional monies and Munch is no exception. I did see an exhibition at Scottish Modern Two (then still the Dean Gallery if I recall correctly) which had multiple copies of similar prints — partly the Gunderson collection — and I rather bounced off it. The British Museum here find a good balance between variant and variation. But there is no mistaking a Munch for any other artist.

We only have two oil paintings here — The Sick Child and Self-Portrait with Tula Larsen. The deaths of Munch’s mother and elder sister Sophie from tuberculosis clearly had a traumatic impact on him and there are variants of the former image — the fact that the painting was controversial at a Berlin exhibition in the 1890s is odd to square with the 1907 date, but then you realise this is the fourth version. Odd to see that this is owned by the Tate, because I don’t think I’ve seen this on display (aside from the Tate’s own Munch exhibition). It’s perhaps worth knowing that the woman is not Munch’s mother but his aunt and how rapidly it appears to have been painted, with dominant colours of green and red. The same imagery works its way into prints and his designs for Ibsen’s Ghosts (there’s also an extraordinary one of the very young Munch and his dead mother).

The double portrait — you can’t help but notice — is sawn in half, and includes Tula Larsen, an actor whom Munch met in 1898, whose relationship with Munch demands the application of the word stormy. There was mutual jealousy, paranoia, love and much much drinking, taking in an engagement and her attempted suicide by morphine, culminating in Munch shooting himself, apparently accidentally, in the hand. I’m not clear whether Munch was constitutionally unsuited to marriage — and frankly misogynistic — or whether his experience with Larsen put him off women. He seems to have sawn the painting in half after they split — it’s not clear if he painted them when they were still together. And there’s a third party behind them (possibly Arne Kavli, whom she married in 1903, although they split in 1910 and she then married Hans Brecke Blehr).

There are, after all, all the paintings and prints of men and women with entangled hair, the hair being described as like telephone wires. His various prints of The Kiss anticipate Klimt’s much misread image of lovers and the Woman in Three Stages seems an awkward variant on the maiden, the mother and, er, the other one. Desire offers woman as entrapment, whilst posing as a satire on male lust. Who is being blamed here?
Madonna shows “woman in a state of surrender — where she acquires the afflicted beauty of a Madonna.” As so often, as with Puberty we get the ambiguity of the passive object — perhaps the acknowledgement of a brutal reality — colliding with active seduction and corruption of the masculine viewer. Neither gives proper agency to the woman.

This brings us to Love and Pain, another version of The Kiss, with the shock of red hair and the woman seemingly biting the back of the man’s neck. The painting was renamed The Vampire by Stanisław Przybyszewski, a German-Polish writer Munch met in Berlin. Munch had become close to Przybyszewski’s wife, the author Dagny Juel, and both are featured in the painting/print Jealousy, with presumably Munch as the third party. I write presumably, but the exhibition notes she was shot by a jealous lover (in Tbilisi, it seems, but the shooter isn’t named anywhere I’ve found).


So let’s come to The Scream, with I’ve written about before and here represented by a black and white print, first shown in Germany and reproduced in various media. We also have here a print of Despair, a man looking over a railing to a fjord, but with the blood red sky that formed the heart of Munch’s epiphany. This comes down to us with the strange hairless figure, a hint it is suggested of a Peruvian mummy Munch saw in the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris. The blood red sky is repurposed in the reuse of the figures from Evening on Karl Johans Gate, in the print Angst (1896) and here the faces seem to be wearing masks – as they are in his depiction of Belin life.
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“I see their hollow eyes – skulls behind the pale masks” he writes somewhere. Each face masks something.


I don’t think Munch’s prints are substitutes for the paintings – although I admire his skill and the way in which he takes the form in a different way from Nikolai Astrup. I wish I could go back in time knowing what I know now to see that Scottish exhibition, to curate the many tiny differences between states. But this offers a whole set of his dominant motifs from a two decade slice of his career, even if it can’t locate his later adventures in colour.

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