Dangerous women, failed relationships, melancholic landscapes and the death of loved ones all haunt the work of artist Edvard Munch, as seen in the British Museum’s latest exhibition.
The British Museum’s first exhibition on Munch’s prints depends chiefly on the collection held at the Munch Museum in Oslo. The catalogue introduction pointedly shames the British Museum for its oversight of such ‘pioneering’ prints and their significant role in ‘introducing “Modernism” to the twentieth century’ although Munch was not widely collected in Britain and even now occupies a liminal space among Symbolists and Expressionist artists in the popular imagination. Caught within our limited exposure to Norway’s cultural heritage, between Henrik Ibsen’s psychological dismantlings and Edvard Grieg’s oxygenating flights of the imagination, Munch’s prints from the later years of his career combine the claustrophobic sexual tension and restless energy intrinsic to the work by these artists, albeit in a different genre. The exhibition publicity uses Munch’s woodcut of his best known work The Scream to alert visitors to the fact that Munch is both familiar and strange. His work disturbs, dismays, excites and even angers. The word ‘angst’ in the exhibition title applies equally to the underlying disquietude of the works’ geneses and to the unease they provoke in the viewer. ‘Love’ is harder to identify, other than as the impulse betrayed, distorted and heightened by the fin de siècle malaise that affected Munch and so many other artists of the period.
The exhibition meanders through a succession of European capitals to which Munch travelled, fleeing from commitment and seeking fellow Bohemian artists and friends. However, as the exhibition emphasises, he was always drawn back to his home, Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925) and the final room returns there with a wall-size photograph of the ageing Munch surrounded by his paintings. Contemporary film footage introduces Kristiania, Berlin and Paris alongside Munch’s own impressions which he wrote on postcards to his aunt. Aside from meeting intellectuals, enjoying social opportunities and securing exhibitions for his work, his travels do not clearly reflect different phases of his artistic career. The prints on display have some stylistic connections with the artistic developments associated with these towns, but the memorable lonely shoreline settings for his figures take us back to Norwegian villages and misty waters rather than cosmopolitan crowds and urban sprawl.
The displays highlight Munch’s engagement with other artists’ work, for example through the lithograph Miss Loïs Fuller (1893) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The wall label suggests ‘Munch probably knew this print, and would have known of Fuller through the press’. Likewise, we learn that Munch ‘may have had in mind’ Max Klinger’s Symbolist print Dead Mother (1889) when he designed Dead Mother and Child (1901) and ‘would have seen [James McNeill Whistler’s] prints on display in Paris and reproduced in art journals’. Vicarious knowledge of other artists’ work rather than first-hand encounters in their studios appears to have had the most influence on Munch’s practice. He did not meet Paul Gauguin but ‘probably’ saw one of his Noa Noa series of woodcuts, The Spirits of the Dead are Watching (1893-4) when it ‘was stored with a mutual friend in Paris.’ This connection highlights the similarities between Gauguin’s use of stencils and Munch’s ‘jigsaw’ woodcuts. He cut up his woodblocks in order to ink them separately, which would have been more economical and emphasised the strong outlines of each component part.
We do not need to know where Munch travelled or what he saw there in order to register our visceral responses to his etchings and lithographs. We encounter them, and after the Klimt/Schiele exhibition at the Royal Academy at the beginning of the year where the female form was exposed in similar fashion through the piercing, often unsympathetic male gaze, we find that Munch adds deeper undercurrents of fear and torment. His etching The Kiss (1895) and woodcut The Kiss IV (1902) share the name of Klimt’s iconic work and in the same way merge the figures together to create a writhing, abstract representation of sexually-charged embrace where the lines of separate bodily existence fall away. A wall label points out that the ‘expressive potential’ of the woodcut is here ‘fully realised’ so that the wood grain itself binds the couple together. The exhibition explores Munch’s ‘obsessively reworked images of merging figures’. The woodcut technique exposes each application of the knife, each hard-won line, the gradual burrowing into the wood surface and the effort of inking in an elemental urge to express something and fix it within one of the most ancient of artist’s mediums. Munch’s woodcut compositions have raw vitality. The gouged lines in his Head by Head (1905) suggest tension, friction and separation. The heads are pulling away rather than together as we would expect. The female is printed in red, while the male is in black. With dark and inscrutable eyes he is taut with rejection.
Munch’s series, the Frieze of Life, an ancient theme which also obsessed other contemporary Symbolist artists, focused on the different life stages of Woman. These typically centred her within her relationship to Man. In his etching, Woman in Three Stages (1895), the ‘amorous demands’ of a central figure, shamelessly confronting the viewer with her exposed and strident body stands between bowed, clothed ‘innocence’ and a resigned, veiled older woman. ‘Innocence’ gazes towards the sea in the background where the moon casts a long shining path (this phallic symbol recurs throughout much of Munch’s work). ‘Innocence’ is therefore defined by her pre-sexual status, perhaps her longing for sexual fulfilment; while the older woman on the other side is defined by a rejection of her as a sexual being.
The exhibition stresses the tempestuous and dismal lives led by many of Munch’s Bohemian circle. Few were able to commit to relationships and the extremes of alcohol-fuelled irrational behaviour often led to misery. Munch’s lithograph, Madonna (1895-1902), depicts a woman in a state of abandoned reverie, with sperm and a foetus in the marginal space. This explicit connection to the reality of sex outraged viewers, who perhaps preferred their abandoned women in the setting of ancient Rome or mythical narrative, unchallenging and removed from the consequences of their actions. Munch persisted in his choice of predatory women as subjects, his red printing ink flowing through their long hair in a succession of images in which a male figure is engulfed and suffocating under the weight and creep of this potent female attribute. Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896) conjures the artistic tradition which began with paintings of Mary Magdalene caressing Jesus’s feet, through to Salome or Judith cradling their victims’ heads, or Samson at the mercy of Delilah and her scissors.
One of the most disturbing of Munch’s lithographs is his Desire (1898). He hand-printed this small image himself and it is described as a satirical drawing which ‘ridicules a group of men, their faces distorted with lust as they leer over a young woman’. It too seems to hark back to a religious subject, the apocryphal gospel story of Susannah and the Elders, the innocent young woman blackmailed by the old men who surprised her as she bathed. In Munch’s print there is a nightmarish quality to the mask-like faces and the prone figure of the girl, seemingly laid out unconscious on a table. The public appetite for witnessing medical experiments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often involving young women suffering from ‘hysteria’ or other ‘female’ psychological ailments, is well documented. It had a prurient voyeuristic appeal for the viewers lurking beneath their ostensible scientific interest and was usually staged within a male-privileged institutional environment. The exhibition includes a copy of the book Nouvelle Iconographie de la Salpêtrière, vol.3 (1890) which shows photographs of women with mental illness confined at the hospital. The female patients were frequently the subjects of Dr. Charcot’s lectures at La Sapêtrière, which Munch attended. A print that accompanies Desire on the wall in the exhibition (Woman Lying on her Back (1896) by Toulouse-Lautrec) echoes a similar posture, but as a the subject was a sex worker she had a certain degree of agency which the girl in Desire clearly does not.
Dangerous women, failed relationships and the death of loved ones surround a section which explores Munch’s The Scream (1893). The image suffers from cultural over-exposure but the exhibition presents elements that inspired the composition, photographs of locations, and the fact that a Peruvian mummy, which Munch saw at an exhibition at the Musée d’Ethnologie du Trocadéro in Paris in 1889, may have inspired his screaming head motif. The panic and isolation of the figure clearly still speaks to us, but as we leave the exhibition we encounter the marketing opportunities which diffuse and commodify the image of anguish in the form of fridge magnets. The exhibition gives us a rare and important viewing of Munch’s prints and many of the plates and woodblocks which created them. It also allows us to consider him within the artistic life of important European capitals, but he still remains a stranger here in Britain. We will see whether he finds a permanent place and whether the British Museum can right the wrongs of its former neglect.
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is showing at the British Museum until 22 July. For more information or to book tickets, click here.