Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Edvard Munch: The modern eye

Tate Modern, 28 June - 14 October 2012

Edvard Munch: Self-portrait. The night wanderer. 1923-4.
Munch museet.

A major Tate Modern exhibition serves to reveal its subject as a latecomer rather than an innovator, despite its claims.

Sometimes curators claim too much for their subject, and here is a case study. Whatever might be said of Munch, I saw nothing in this exhibition to suggest he was a precursor of modernism, or modern in any other significant respect, aside from the fact he died in 1944.
The curators claim his aged self-portraits are unflinching depictions of his fragility, yet whether he had just experienced a life threatening illness, or was so old that death must have seemed imminent, Munch consistently portrayed himself as a hero, intense, stoic, resolute.

Edvard Munch: Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940–3
Munch Museet

On the evidence of this exhibition, which collects photographs, woodcuts, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, even amateur films, the artist’s self image was the same throughout his life, at all ages. 

Given the failure of these curators to make him modern, I feel confident in asserting that Munch was a late Romantic, in fact a Decadent, his whole life, regardless of the changes that surrounded him.
Almost everything about his art confirms that he was born too late, with the partial exception of his chosen media, though it is clear his reputation will continue to rest on his paintings rather than his photography and films.

Some of the rooms are impressive despite contradicting the curatorial plan. A room of some of his more well-known paintings in early and later incarnations is interesting. Munch compulsively repainted his earlier ideas, though I think the general rule is: earlier is better.
Perhaps as time passed and he became more detached from his preferred period, which is clearly the late Romantic twilight of vampires, screams, nights and forests, the harder it became to recapture his original inspiration.

Well then, a belated figure. How does he stand, considering his concerns in themselves, so far as we can assess this? Pride, obsession, angst: these are his High Romantic themes, and as we might expect from a decadent version of romanticism, his art induces unease, claustrophobia, spleen, even nausea.
Colours clash; faces (or masks of such) are prominent; viewpoints are vertiginously dramatic. The exhibition is useful in showing he had more ways of achieving these effects than I thought. Not everything is wibbly-wobbly.
A room filled with minor variations on a single theme – a downcast near-naked woman – made me think that having a good visual idea mattered more to him than anything else, and he recreated it in various media. So at his best he is an imaginative graphic artist, with descendents in that field science fiction, comic books, poster design.  

Having a characteristic approach is a strong selling point for an artist, and Munch had that. But if we compare him with his older contemporary, Ibsen, for whose dramas he sometimes produced scenery, we discover his limitations. Munch’s best paintings reflect our doubts, our fears. Ibsen takes this basic material and uses it to investigate how we might overcome these anxieties, whether successfully or not. 

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