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Feature: Modern take on Munch

Pictured Left: Edvard Munch Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940-1943, oil on canvas, 149.5x120.5,Munch Museum
Pictured Middle: Edvard Munch, Kiss on the Shore by Moonlight, 1914, oil on canvas, 77x100, Munch Museum
Pictured Right: Edvard Munch Weeping Woman, 1907, oil on canvas, 174x59.5 Munch Museum

Published: 5 July, 2012

Show curator Angela Lampe assures us that the artist “was not completely alone and angst-ridden in a studio”.

It’s true that The Scream is not included in the Tate Modern’s new Edvard Munch exhibition, yet there is plenty of angst on show.

Even when the Norwegian did get out and about he could still plumb the depths of despair with such works as Landscape and Dead Bodies, Murder on the Road, On the Operating Table, The House is Burning!, Fire, and Execution.

Works by Munch (1863-1944), of course, will challenge the visitor with their stark and often visceral nature. He wrote: “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied anatomy and dissected corpses… so I try to dissect souls”.

What this major new show attempts is to reassess and reposition him as not only “a 19th-century painter, a symbolist or pre-expressionist” but as an artist engaging with contemporary concerns and the modernity of the age. The majority of his works were produced in the 20th century.

To this end, it features 60 or so paintings but also 50 photographs and some film he shot on a Pathé-Baby camera in 1927.

Co-curator Clément Chéroux believes Munch scored a real first in photographic history with his intimate, in-your-face, self-portraits taken by holding the camera at arm’s length.

Photography was not his only method for self-portraiture which itself is absolutely central to his work and this exhibition. The first picture in the show is an oil on paper self-portrait, at age 18, from 1882.

The last from 1943, the year before he died, is Between the Clock and the Bed (see above) and shows just that. Note the clock face with no hands and the bed in which, perhaps, he believes he will draw his last breath.

There are others: oils, woodcuts, and photographs, self-portraits “as an invalid”, with brush and palette”, “in broad-brimmed hat”, “with the Spanish flu”, “with bottles” and “naked in the garden”. This is an artist totally unfazed by turning the spotlight upon himself.

The debate about, and use of, photography was important for Munch.

A favourite aphorism was published in 1929 as: “The camera cannot compete with brush and palette – as long as it cannot be used in Heaven or Hell.”

Years before his view was: “We want something more than just a photo­graph of nature… We want an art that grasps.”

Photographic images of his models are rare.

One exception is Rosa Meissner.

We see her with Munch on the beach at Warnemünde but also naked in a hotel room there, in a double-exposure, with a ghostly second figure in the background.

The study sparked a remarkable series of works which are given a dedicated room in the exhibition under the overall title Compulsion.

For the first time the six paintings in Munch’s Weeping Woman series from 1907-1909, on the theme of the weeping Psyche, are together here.

The thematic structure of the exhibition demonstrates the scope of Munch’s output.

Self-examination; his reworking of images over long periods of time, most famously with The Girls on the Bridge, The Kiss, and The Sick Child; as film-maker; his use of unusual angles of view; his collaboration with Max Reinhardt on a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts; his interest in spiritualism.

There are also striking works from 1930 after he had suffered a haemorrhage in his right eye. He tried to record what he saw through the damage, and this resulted in a unique form of abstract imagery.

• Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at Tate Modern, Bankside, until October 14. £14, 020 7887 8888, www.tate


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