Edvard Munch was obsessed with love and angst and death, and nowhere is it better expressed than in his art.
I went to this exhibition in 2019 – three years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic. I also wrote and edited this blog that same summer, but for some reason it never made it to publication. It’s probably one of my first ever museum reviews, so I’m choosing to publish it anyway. But hey – the exhibition might not be available anymore, but the art still exists – and that’s all that matters.
Off to the museum!
I had delayed going to this exhibition, thinking in three months I would have plenty of opportunities to make my way to the British Museum to see the Edvard Munch exhibition. And then I blinked, in between multiple trips abroad and a blistering heat wave throughout England that saw me locking myself indoors with the curtains pulled and the fan turned on, and there were only ten days left before the exhibition closed. So I grabbed my bag, took the bus, and paid £19 for a ticket to the Love and Angst exhibition, a collaboration with the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.
I knew Munch mainly as a painter, and mainly as the creator of “The Scream” painting, but he was also a talented litographer and printmaker, remixing his own artworks in new mediums and formats and interpretations.
At the entrance there is a shortbiography of the artist, and a lovely quote painted on the wall (unsourced).
To note – while I’m usually rather skeptical of pretty quotes painted on walls, I’ll make an exception for this exhibition, choosing to believe that the curators have done their diligence and research. All quotes below are taken from the exhibition.
Edvard Munch, 1889
We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.
I start reading the panels, enravelling Munch’s life in fragments – he was born in Kristiania (now Oslo), from where he would try to escape his entire life. He left his hometown in his early twenties, but would be drawn back repeatedly by the “obligation to care for his family and the magnetic appeal of the Norwegian landscape.”
In a dark, secluded corner there is a screen offering an audio-visual experience of Kristiania. There was something so eerie about the colours and the visuals that I took multiple photos – so many that I could in effect recreate video fragments into GIFs.
Love & Obsession
Edvard Munch, 1889
One shall no longer paint interriors, people reading and women knitting. They will be people who are alive, who breathe and feel, suffer and love.
Love is never simple for Munch, and the levels of romantic obsession are most commonly portrayed in his favourite motif – that of lovers entangled, embraced, merged, until they are just one.
In woodcut, the artist cuts a woodblock with chisels and gouges so that the areas to be inked stand in relief. Ink is then rolled onto the surface of the block, which is printed onto a sheet of paper, either in a press under vertical pressure or by hand-rubbing the back of the paper. Traditionally, a separate block was cut for the design (key block) and for each colour, and then the block were printed in sequence.
You can see in the above woodcuts that Munch often inked one block in different colours for a single printing. For other pieces he would saw up the design so that pieces could be inked separately and then assembled like a jigsaw for printing.
Angst & Anxiety
Edvard Munch, about 1908
For as long as I can rememberd I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.
Perhaps no other painter has better illustrated the concept of angst, anxiety and that unsettling restlessness that itches underneath your skin.
Life & Death
Edvard Munch, undated
The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.
Munch’s life was marred by illness and death, and it affected his art in tremendous ways. One traumatic incident that stayed with him until his passing was the death of his 15-year-old sister Sophie, of tuberculosis. The damned/sick/dying motif will feature continuously in his work.
Munch originally called this piece “Love and Pain”, but his friend name Przybyzszewski gave it its more sensational title, capitalising on a trend for symbolism and fantasy.
This litograh was printed from three stones, featuring the classical motif of the nude Madonna, but with a modern, almost ironic twist, with the border depicting sperm and a foetus, which provoked outrage at the time. “Munch became disillusioned with the merits of free love” (don’t we all), but he “remained convinced of the sanctitiy of the creative act”.
The above three paintings are not part of a set, but seeing them in the same place makes sense thematically – and there’s something particular, visceral in how Munch portrays human suffering.
Edvard Munch, 1890 - 1892
All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood - Art is one’s lifeblood.
“The Scream” is Edvard Munch’s most famous composition, endlessly admired, reproduced and parodied. Its history is just as fascinating as its composition.
The original inspiration came from an episode in 1892. In Munch’s own words, from his diary entry dated 22th January 1892:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Munch then sketched a composition called “Despair”, which is the predecessor to “The Scream”, though in this version the subject turns away from the viewer.
“The Scream”, in its most well-known form, was painted the following year, in 1893. And two years later, in 1895, Munch made a monochromatic litograph, writing underneath it in German – “I felt the large scream pass through nature”.
The Norwegian painter Christian Skredsvig recalled in his 1908 memoirs:
“For some time Munch had been wanting to paint the memory of a sunset. Red as blood. No, it actually was coagulated blood… He talked himself sick about that sunset and how it filled him with great anxiety.”
A sort of spiritual successors are his pieces “Angst”, the original made in 1896 – people of Kristiania overimposed on the background of “The Scream”. A later version would be made in 1906, of a much deeper black/red/white contrast and – rather – more terrifying figures.
Munch scribbled in an undated note:
“why do people’s faces glide past me like a stream, restlessly, incessantly, seeking a destination. I see their hollow eyes – skulls behind the pale masks…”
Munch would move back to Norway and die there in 1944. It is interesting to note that all his life he had wanted to escape, but felt in his old age that escape was an illusion. After all, we can’t escape our upbringing, parents or childhood traumas, no more than we can escape sickness and death.
“Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” art exhibition ran at the British Museum from 11 April to 21 July 2019.
Psst – this review goes nicely with my first Hunting Inspiration post, where I track down the origin of a so-called “inspirational” Edvard Munch quote.
This article is part of the Art Exhibitions series, where I review permanent and temporary exhibitions of art I find interesting. Read the rest of the series here.