Edvard Munch Vampires And Death With A Symbolist Sensibility

Edvard Munch Tate Modern Review

Review – Tate Modern’s blockbuster exhibition of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch ‘The Modern Eye’, opened today to the press for a preview glimpse of what promised to be a reassessment of the artists’ work in the 20th century. If you are coming to this exhibition to see ‘The Scream’ you may be disappointed, as it isn’t here.

Munch, like Van Gogh before him, is often characterised as a tormented soul with an unhappy personal life plagued with death, illness, and a troubled love-life all of which is reflected in his work.  He is known as a precursor to Expressionism but with a Northern European Symbolist sensibility.  The Tate challenges you to ‘if you know Edvard Munch, think again’.  The exhibition proposes ‘a ground-breaking dialogue between the artist’s paintings and drawings made in the first half of the 20th century and his often overlooked interest in the rise of modern media, including photography, film and the re-birth of stage production.’  So far so good.   However, the result is a very uneven show and an exhibition display that is trying to prove a point rather than providing a stimulating, inspiring and informative experience.

Room 2 entitled ‘Reworkings’ contains some of his more familiar images. These are subjects which he returned to frequently and are here set against each other for comparison.  A highly coloured 1902 version with a strong linear quality of ‘Girls on a Bridge’ is matched by a 1927 version, which is an altogether simpler offering. Similarly, there are 1907 and 1925 versions of ‘The Sick Child’ – the later painting is a more sketchy, brighter work with an almost hopeful, angelic face of the child set against the darker, expressive, intense lines of the earlier work. Likewise, the 1893 and 1916 versions of ‘Vampire’ show the same dark against light finishes. Was this Munch looking at the medium of film? The curator seems to think so.

Munch at his best has a strong sense of composition and narrative.  His use of a figure in the foreground staring out at the viewer and diagonal lines converging into the painting produce an unsettling response such as in ‘Red Virginia Creeper’ 1898 and repeated in ‘Murder on the Road’ of 1919 and again in ‘Street in Asgardstrad’ 1901. But is this really the result of a new awareness of optical devices such as the camera lucida which projected images onto the drawing surface or is it the result of his many years of travelling to Paris and Berlin and his exposure to the latest artistic trends in Europe? Degas and Caillebotte in particular often used this device and in their turn were influenced by Japanese prints and yes photography too.

It is always interesting to see all the versions of a particular work that are scattered in different collections and here the exhibition brings together the six oil paintings in Munch’s ‘Weeping Woman’ series of 1907-9 which carry more than a nod to Bonnard and Vuillard with his interest in the domestic interior and the pattern of the wallpaper and the loose brushstrokes. The actual quality of painting here is somewhat lacking and the series falls flat by comparison to the artists mentioned above.

The best pieces in the exhibition were in Room 8.  The room was meant to be about Munch’s relationship with scientific discoveries such as x-rays and how they are often linked to spiritual feelings.  ‘The Sun’ 1910-13 is a study for the murals in Oslo University and depicts a thickly painted sun with lines radiating out over purple mountain creating a heavenly William Blake like aura and ‘Starry Night’ 1922-4 with a snowy foreground that leads you into a blue and purple Symbolist night sky.

Room 11 is devoted to a series of sketches that Munch created in the 1930s after suffering a haemorrhage in his right eye.  He began to document what he could see through the damaged eye.  As works of art they are not very inspiring but are only interesting as part of his biography.  Other works are also incredibly uneven in quality but are included to exemplify the premise of the exhibition, his place embracing a modern society.  Bearing in mind when he died a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings, 15,391 prints were discovered in his home (in addition to woodcuts, etchings, photographs, and more) it is a shame that not more prints were included.  The few that are shown have such an energy and vitality to them that it would have helped to reinforce the show’s message.  The later self-portraits again show his inner anguish dealing with illness and ageing in styles reminiscent of Matisse and the Fauves.

An exhibition that sets out to show a different view of Munch only reaffirms that the Munch we all know is the more interesting Munch. Most art historians agree that his works prior to 1909 were far more impressive and powerful despite almost half of his life remaining. Even the large retrospective of Munch held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006 devoted less that a fifth of the show to his later output.   So what is so wrong in showing us the whole picture of Munch.  We haven’t had a major retrospective of Munch in this country.  Many of his earlier works have not been seen here for years. Munch has had far reaching influenes with Peter Doig and Tracey Emin citing him as a major influence.  Younger artists are unlikely to be so impressed after seeing this show. *** Stars

Words/Photo:  Sara Faith © ArtLyst 2012

Tate Modern 28 June -14 October 2012