Munch’s Scream Revisited at the British Museum

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Kiss

 

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 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.

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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.

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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.

Unknown-1The 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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

SCANDI-NOIR IN SE21: Harald Sohlberg the Dulwich Art Gallery

Ah, Norway. Fjords, trolls, Ibsen; and birthplace in 1869 of Harald Sohlberg, whose atmospheric and alluring landscapes are on exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June. If you like Scandi-noir, you will love this.

Norway, like Switzerland, has one of the most beautiful and (you would think) artistically inspiring landscapes on earth; so it’s a puzzle why both countries have produced so few landscape painters. Most of us, I think, would be hard put to come up with the name of any Norwegian painter, beyond that of Munch. Munch was Sohlberg’s contemporary, and there are similarities between the two – the influence of the Symbolists such as Paul Gauguin (much as both men might have denied it); but above all, in this show, the influence of the Norwegian landscape itself. Snow-covered mountains glowing under the Nordic moon, legions of pine-trees, and that Scandinavian relish, product of the long monochrome winters, for deep, vivid colour – red-painted houses, leaning under the weight of snow, the glow of a sunset, distant hills of hallucinogenic violet, and the gold of a candle-lit window. Sohlberg also does a particularly wonderful job of getting onto canvas the luminescence and the colours of the midnight sun, a phenomenon which is completely unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for real, but Sohlberg catches it perfectly. His Fisherman’s Cottage of 1906 is a sort of summation of these traits, and of the cleverness with which his paintings are constructed. The foreshore dips down, the trees, painted with such thick impasto that their trunks have cracked, have just enough space between them to let you through, and there is the little bright cottage, inviting you come in from the cold.

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Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith.

Sohlberg initially trained as a painter of scenery and there is a scenic sense of layering in his works. The foregrounds have that hyper-detailed, Rackham-esque quality; the mid-ground lures you to walk down that path or up that road; in the distance there is some vast new vista to aim for. You can see exactly why his paintings lend themselves so well to being cover-images for novels; thrillers in particular, perhaps. And nothing in them is there by accident. Winter on the Balcony, perhaps the same balcony from which the artist watched the midnight sun, is so lightly painted that the squaring-up of the canvas is still visible, as is the care with which Sohlberg constructed the wooden exterior of the building and the balcony itself – the tightness of their carpentry hinting at the meticulousness with which you had to create habitations for yourself in this landscape and this weather. There is a sense in these works of the landscape giving form to thought, a quality that puts you in mind immediately of the similarly curious, almost uninhabited cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw.

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Harald Sohlberg, Street in Røros in Winter, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Sohlberg’s drawings are as cunningly constructed as his paintings. There are two drawings in particular in this show – one, the side of a clapboard cottage in charcoal and pencil, and the other, of a girl, a rare inhabitant, looking over a fence in a backyard – that are quite breathtaking. The backyard is one little world, yet behind it there rears the impervious façade of a 19th-century apartment block, so that you have the entire life and history of a city in just three elements. Sohlberg was painting at a time when the rural industries of Norway – fishing, mining, and the landscapes they existed in – were being transformed by the technological changes of the early 20thcentury, and while there is no consciousness in any of these works of the revolutions and conflict that were going on in the rest of Europe at the time, they have an undertone; there are details that unsettle and perturb. Night, Roros Church, for example, painted looking down into the sleeping town, seems so peaceful, and there is that one comforting beam of light coming from a window at the top of the church itself, but then you look at the tombstones scattered over the uneven ground before you, the rough black crosses, and you realize where the artist had placed himself – back here, amongst the dead.

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Harald Sohlberg, Night, Røros Church, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Dulwich is on something of a roll with exhibitions such as this – first showings, unexpected works, and unexpected artists, too. There was Escher in 2015, Tove Jansson in 2017, Jusepe de Ribera and Edward Bawden in 2018, and now Sohlberg is another – and another not to miss.

Harald Sohlberg, Dulwich Picture Gallery to 2 June

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At top: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.