Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norwegian painter (Photo by APIC/Getty Images)

Insanity and death

Munch at the Musée D’Orsay

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“The angels of fear, sorrow and death have followed me since the day I was born”, declared Edvard Munch (possibly on one of his better days). Anyone remotely familiar with Munch’s art is not going to visit this major exhibition in Paris expecting to come away with a spring in their step and imbued with cheery optimism. With works titled Anguish, Melancholy, Despair and By the Deathbed, Munch is not known for his perky art.

That is why so many of us are drawn to his work, saturated as it is in its gloomy symbolism: he goes right to the heart of human insecurities over love, anxiety, decay and mortality. His concerns are our concerns; it’s just that he is rather more expressive about it all. 

Munch was born in the dark December of the Nordic winter in 1863. Insanity and death broke his family. Tuberculosis took his mother and sister in his childhood; he himself nearly succumbed. One sibling died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-five; another spent most of her life in a psychiatric institution. His father suffered from bouts of severe depression as did the son, Munch admitting himself to a clinic in Copenhagen in 1909. The artistic results of this move prompted, for a while at least, fresher and more modernistic paintings — and, it has to be said, less satisfactory ones. As is so often the case, misery brings forth the greatest art, which Munch both acknowledged and appreciated: “My sufferings are part of myself and my art: they are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” 

Munch returned to these motifs endlessly, even obsessively

The exhibition is organised around six themed rooms. It starts with “From the Intimate to the Symbolic”, revealing Munch’s changing of style in the late 1880s and early 1890s from the more conventional (and very accomplished) to the more striking and familiar elements of Symbolism. This transformation can be witnessed with Summer Night: Inger on the Beach (1889), a melancholic and reflective depiction of his sister Inger on a rocky shoreline, which is in stark contrast to his Inger in Sunshine from the previous year (not on display here): the latter is part-impressionist, part-Norwegian Naturalist, all airy and bright. The former expresses darker, more introspective sentiments in bolder brushstrokes, nocturnal gloom and sallow complexion. This is the disorienting Munch we are familiar with and grateful for. 

The transition can be seen taking place in The Sick Child (1885-86), at once a conventional, common theme and an advance to something new. It shocked and disturbed many, one critic damning it as “an abortion”. Its canvas is profusely scratched, as if he were attempting to eradicate the memory of his dying sister. As Munch said, this painting was his breakthrough in art: “Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture”. 

Arguably the greatest success of this section is Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair (1892), the direct precursor to The Scream of 1893 (an 1895 lithograph appears in the next room). There is no facial terror here, just a blank profile staring over the bridge. So acquainted are we with the latter, it is easy to overlook Despair, which for many will be the greater work. 

The Frieze of Life intentionally dominates the exhibition, a never-completed and never clearly defined series of paintings that basically capture the angst of the emotional crises of life — and thus, of course, death. As the exhibition exhaustively shows, he returned to these themes and motifs endlessly, even obsessively, in oil, woodcuts, lithographs, zincographs, sketches and various other formats: the exhibition rooms are replete with them. 

It is from this that the exhibition has taken Vampire (1895) as its poster painting. A red-haired lady (it’s always red hair for the sexually confident and predatory women in Munch) tucks into the neck of the powerless man. For some the long strands of hair are the tentacles that grasp his body, but they also represent flows of blood as the victim is helplessly but willingly exsanguinated. Here and throughout this section the symbolism jumps out from the canvases as we encounter some of Munch’s greatest works: the mysterious Dance on the Beach (1899-1900), the iconic Melancholy (1894-96), the unsettling Evening on Karl Johan (1892) and the stark By the Deathbed (1895). 

“Reuse and Mutation of the Motif” collects more revisitations. The inclusion of so many sketches, repeated attempts and reprisals throughout the exhibition certainly enhances our understanding of the artist’s creative process and thinking, but too many can, as here, dilute the experience of the exhibition goer. The balance between finished works and studies is somewhat out of kilter.

He gives vent to his resentment of past relationships with women

“Munch and the Grand Decorations” concentrates on murals and friezes, such as The Reinhardt Frieze (1905–06), with which Munch immodestly announced, “I launched modern decorative art. As is so often the case, quality can be lost at such scale, chiefly in finish and impact with Munch. Accustomed themes and echoes abound, more of interest than of profundity, but Trees by the Beach from the Linde Frieze (1904) is an eye-catching land and seascape with a brilliant capturing of light to add to the usual intensity of colour. By 1914 we are witnessing a loss of inspiration and originality with the clichéd History, in which an old man is teaching a young boy, the substandard William Blakeanism of Towards the Light and the messy and even amateurish The Sun (1912): all sketches of little interest.

More rewarding are the short-lived attempts at dramatic collaboration, especially with, appropriately enough, Ibsen, in the “Mise-en-scene and Introspection” section. “The Green Room” series is most striking here, not least for its dark subject murder, especially the desolate Jealousy (1907) and The Murderess (1907), the latter having more impact for keeping the victim obscured and ill-defined. Here as much as anywhere in his work Munch gives vent to his anger and resentment of his past relationships with women. 

The unforgiving and disconcerting self-portraits capture him up to within a year of his death in 1944. I find Self-portrait in Hell (1903) less disturbing than The Artist and His Model (1919–21; there are a few pieces with this appellation within these dates). Is this simply an honest portrayal of the ageing artist contrasted with the young model with her life ahead of her? Or are there sordid confessional indications of an old, caprine satyr having completed his work?

The “Poem of Life, Love and Death” is undoubtedly a huge event for the Musée d’Orsay and the sheer scale of it has a quality of its own; but for all its impressive displays it still feels a little diluted. Ultimately, this fosters a slight sense of disappointment.

One of the most intriguing and attractive aspects of Munch’s work is how it defies categorisation and attachment to a defined movement: symbolism, synthetism, modernism and expressionism are all variously represented, all in Munch’s readily recognisable style. His work is very much sui generis, which infuses his less than subtle symbolism with an additional allure. Yes, viewers can project their own interpretations onto the paintings, but they are never going to stray far from Munch’s own intentions. Thus the artist and the viewer are directly and personally connected. This is part of Munch’s genius. So the crowds continue to come. 

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