One of the largest show of Edvard Munch’s prints and woodcuts in the UK for 45 years is now being held at the British Museum until 21 July 2019. For those who may not be familiar with the artist, you would certainly recognise the “art’s most haunting and iconic face”. A piece of artwork that is so renowned that it has become an emoji!
Despite being considered as one of the founding fathers of Expressionism, very little is known about him. The exhibition aims to shed light on the Norwegian painter by exploring the political history of pre-war era Europe, particularly Oslo, Berlin and Paris where Munch travelled and found new influences. As you wander through the exhibition, it delves into Munch’s unconventional Bohemian lifestyle and beliefs which moulded his art and innovative printmaking techniques.
Expressionism focuses on emotional experience above all else, particularly the isolation and anxiety of modern existence through highly intense and non-naturalistic brushwork. Expressionism is generally applied to the art of the twentieth century where it is said to have started with Vincent Van Gogh but included others such as Edvard Munch, James Ensor and later, Egon Schiele.
Expressionists are in contrast to the Impressionists, where the goal was not to reproduce the impression suggested by the surrounding world but to strongly impose the artist’s own sensibility to the world’s representation. Expressionists explored the psyche; the focus was on dramatic and emotion-laden themes, particular qualities of fear, horror and the grotesque.
During the pre-war era, Expressionists reacted to the increasingly industrialised lives and sense of isolation. The artists developed a powerful mode of social criticism through their artwork. This included representations of modern cities through alienated individuals, including prostitutes (think Egon Schiele) who were used to comment on capitalism’s role in the emotional distancing of individuals within cities.
The art movement rejected the dominant styles and subject matter of German visual culture at the turn of the 20th century, instead, found early inspiration in the flat patterning and bold forms of The New Art movement. Expressionists looked for inspiration beyond European art and culture to native folk traditions and tribal art; such as African and Oceanic art; as it was then considered to be primitive and unevolved.
The movement flourished from 1905 to 1920, particularly in Germany and Austria. However, with the rise of Nazism in Germany, this led to the end of the Expressionist movement, with most of the artwork removed from museums and confiscated from private collections.
Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944)
Edvard Munch was a prolific yet perpetually troubled artist preoccupied with matters of human mortality such as chronic illness, sexual liberation, and religious aspiration.
Born in 1863 in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway. Munch grew up with an older sister and three younger siblings. The family moved to Oslo in 1864 and became the start of his personal struggles and anguish. Munch became familiar with death. He lost his mother to tuberculosis before he turned 13. He lost his much-loved sister nine years later to the same disease. His younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age and his younger brother passed away shortly after his marriage.
He, himself, also suffered from a poor immune system and was kept out of school for months on end. To pass the time, Munch took up drawing and painting. His father would often read ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which instilled in the young Munch a general sense of anxiety about death (unsurprisingly) and how it constantly advanced on him.
There was a constant conflict with his father who Munch considered as “temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious”. Munch enrolled in a technical college in 1879 but frequent illnesses interrupted his studies and in the following year, Munch dropped out to pursue painting. This cause further friction with his father who deemed art as an “unholy trade”. However, this did not stop the budding artist from enrolling at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania in 1881; where he started to seek an alternative bohemian lifestyle.
During this time, Munch discovered the writings of the anarchist philosopher, Hans Jæger, head of a group called the “Kristiania-Boheme”. Jæger advocated for sexual freedom and individualism. They formed a close friendship and it was Jæger who encouraged Munch to draw from personal experience in his work. This led to the painting of The Sick Child (1885 – 1886) which served as a memorial to his favourite sister.
In 1889, Munch travelled to Paris to study at the studio of Leon Bonnat and continued to explore the themes of death and personal loss. Munch’s father passed away that year, and Night in St,.Cloud (1890) served as a memorial. It was after this period, where the Frieze series and related works were the artists most popular and artistically significant period which is the period that the exhibition focuses on. This was the period, where his signature paintings The Scream (1893), Love and Pain (1893-94), Ashes (1894), Madonna (1894-95), and Puberty (1895) were all created.
Munch’s art is not for the faint-hearted as it explores the fear, gloom and angst of his personal Expressionist art. When entering the exhibition, the first painting is a sombre self-portrait; jet black apart from the face and a skeleton arm placed casually on the bottom of the painting. Considering the pains of his past, death is at the forefront of Munch’s art. It is not hidden or subtle but a print version of The Sick Child, The Dead Mother and a print from woodcuts of The Death in the Sick Room is an emotive depiction of loss, almost too painful to look.
The exhibition focuses on his lithographs, woodcuts, drypoint prints and etchings, Munch’s skills seems unrivalled; by using different mediums and methods his prints are just as vivid and haunting as his paintings. His bohemian lifestyle also meant that Munch explored the representation of women’s bodies. The lithograph titled Madonna is of a beautiful woman but contrasted with a curled foetus in the corner of the painting makes it sinister and dangerous.
Munch seemed to have a difficult relationship with women, he was afraid of marriage and his love life was confusing. He was only engaged once to Tulla Larsen but that relationship ended with a gunshot wound to the finger, of which an x-ray is displayed in the exhibition. Some of his most impressive were his works are from the Frieze of Life series where he depicted a love affair through the kiss, love, pain, jealousy, betrayal and despair. The inspiration for his work has been suggested to be his tumultuous relationship with women and the shock and fear associated with the power and passion of women.
Munch was a prolific artist where he produced more than 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings and nearly 15,400 prints throughout this career. Therefore, it is no surprise that he has influenced many artists after him. German Expressionists painters such as Kirchner, Kandinsky, and Beckmann also expressed their individual psychology through intense colour and semi-abstraction. Munch’s influence even extends to Francis Bacon whose portraits reflect the sitter’s psychological turmoil as is manifested in skewed facial and bodily features.
It is hard to shake off the melancholy of Munch’s work when leaving the exhibition, yet the British Museum has managed to shed light into the life of the artist that painted one of the most famous paintings in our Modern History. Recommend – 3.5 out of 5 Pineapples.
With Sweet & Sour Love,
Pineapple Chicken x
For other reviews of the exhibitions, please see the below links: