The Sick Child by Edvard Munch 1885
You wouldn’t wish Edvard Munch’s childhood on your worst enemy. Munch was brought up in Kristiania (as Oslo then was) in a strict Lutheran family in the second half of the 19th century. Aged five, Munch lost his mother to TB and nearly succumbed to the same illness himself eight years later. As he lay on his bed coughing up blood aged thirteen, his father, a medical officer, told him to prepare for death. Several years later, his beloved older sister was the next victim to die of consumption in their family.
Most understandably, Munch escaped this house of doom as soon as he could. His art studies and student life put him in touch with local bohemian circles. What a breath of life-affirming air that must have been even if it meant teaming up with the local nihilist who advocated suicide as an affirming fingers up to society!
Munch survived and took to drinking, brawling and tortuous love affairs. Like a modern-day Instagrammer, Munch transformed his personal life into an art form.
The prints on show at the British Museum are the products of the formative years he spent in Kristiania, Berlin and Paris, right up until the end of WW1.
Love is the overriding theme. The Kiss (1895) shows a naked couple in passionate embrace by a window with the curtains drawn back. Their complete disregard for privacy shows the all consuming aspect of love which ignores any rules of propriety. It’s Rodin’s passionate Kiss statue taken one step further. A wood cut alongside the print, repeats the theme but this time the couple is fused together, into a twisted opaque block. The print in this instance has become an abstract work.
In Vampire II a red-haired woman buries her face into her male lover’s neck. Her long strands spill over his shoulder, his hair and face. The print was originally called Love and Pain. Women as seductresses and destroyers of men was a familiar theme with artists at the time and it was one which proved popular with the art-buyers.
Meanwhile in Madonna, a bare-breasted woman, stripped to the waist, is presented as a life-bearing vessel. A strange foetus peers out at you in the bottom-left hand corner and swimming sperm inhabit the frame. The swirling paint making up the background is reminiscent of Van Gogh, who Munch much admired. It is interesting to note that in 2010, a Madonna print attained the highest price ever recorded in the UK £1.25 million, double its estimated value.
The Americans and Europeans have been great collectors of Munch prints and we can see why. The emotion they ignite in the viewer is immediate.
Jealousy for instance below. The bespectacled man in the foreground stares out pale-faced at us, encased in a black background. His eyes express the shock and despair of one’s first encounter with sexual betrayal. It is a magnificent portrayal of perhaps the most destructive of emotions.
Other prints depict other violent states of mind: madness, despair, separation and illness. All universally potent themes.Most moving was one of the few paintings in the exhibition showing a young woman lying, pale-faced and in profile against her pillow (see Title heading). Her mother, head bowed and hands clasped prays at her bedside. The print version is even more harrowing. The young woman, still in profile, is alone now staring out at death. It’s a haunting image for any adult to behold. Munch returned to the image of his consumptive sister often.
The British Museum prints on show make up part of the collection that Munch called The Frieze of Life.
Probably the most arresting and most notorious image he produced in this collection was the iconic Skrik (Shriek), or The Scream. The skull-like being holding his ears with his mouth wide-open caused a furore in Munch’s Berlin solo show. He was forced to wrap up his canvases and prints after only a week! The young artists however loved it as you would imagine they would latch on to anything so radically new and unsettling.
The print in the exhibition is a rare, black and white lithograph. It includes a faint inscription, absent in the colour versions: ’I felt a great Scream pass through nature.’ Nature seen as the screamer puts a whole new slant on things and sends a chill through me now.
Munch was very much buoyed by the controversy sparked off by The Scream at his Berlin show. He knew that such adverse publicity would launch him in the art world and he wasn’t wrong.
The exhibition Edvard Munch: love and angst will run to 21 July 2019 in the Sir Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.