Edvard Munch is one of those names in the art world that has an overbearing association with just one work – but wrongly so. His is, of course, The Scream. Painted in 1893 by the Norwegian expressionist and inspired by a walk he took one dusk along the edge of a Fjord near Oslo, the work has come to be a symbol of 20th century angst, despair and loneliness – all in the face of modernity.
Yet this new exhibition at the British Museum in London, proves that Munch isn’t a one tricky pony. Made up of the artist’s prints – which it could be argued are more deep, angry and alluring than his paintings – the images are ultimately, believable.
Of course the most recognisable image in the show is a version of The Scream, but here it has been stripped bare of its colour, left in a monochromatic void, convulsing in agony.
Then there is Munch’s self-portrait, where his thinning hair rests atop his face which glows out from the dark like a full moon. Along the bottom-edge of the print is a bare human arm and hand bone, stripped of flesh. Perhaps, this references when he once shot the end off his own finger.
The symbolism throughout is wide open to guess-work, but it is clear that Munch’s mysterious mastery of black line and form, with all its snaking curves and shadows that breathe in and out between the fore and backgrounds, pre-date Scandi-noir by a century.
Born in 1863 in the Norwegian village of Ådalsbruk and raised in Oslo, Munch spent much of his life travelling across Europe, hauling a suitcase of his paintings between cheap hotels and cheaper bars. At 45 he had a complete mental breakdown due to strained nerves and alcoholism.
The show concentrates on his most iconic works, which were created in the 15 years before his 1908 collapse. He first tried printing while in Berlin in 1983, although they never made him much financial success.
The work Vampire, which was made just two years after Munch printed his first picture, shows how quickly he learned his skills however. Depicting a man drowning in a woman’s thick, black hair as she tries to kiss his neck, its an eloquently executed image.
The work also gives insight into Munch’s frantic, sociality chaotic world; it was modelled for by a friend of Munch’s named Dagny Juel – she was the niece of the Norwegian prime minister. Munch competed for her love with the Expressionist writer August Strindberg and the Polish novelist Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who was her husband and a supposed Satanist.
It is little wonder that Munch was so disturbed however, when you delve further into his biography. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was four, as did his sister when she was 12. His despairing father, a priest, would beg god for forgiveness daily. Little wonder he was so full of despair.
After a stint in a sanatorium in Germany, Munch returned to Norway and worked until aged 80. He died there in 1944, while the country was occupied by the Nazis. In a macabre twist of fate, for the end of his life, Hitler’s forces insisted he be given a full Nazi funeral – despite the fact the regime banned him from showing his art during the occupation as it was deemed degenerate.
Munch’s work, part horror, part beauty, taps into the fragility and yearning of existence. This small, but rich exhibition, which is wonderfully curated, proves that his pictures – even the lesser known but equally powerful ones – successfully muse on what it means to be human.
Words by Toby Mellors
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum until 21 July 2019