Culture: Munch - a Life in Pictures; Chiefly Famous for His Painting the Scream, Edvard Munch Was a Long-Lived and Prolific Artist Whose Later Work Is Little Known in Britain, Writes Terry Grimley

The Birmingham Post (England), October 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

Culture: Munch - a Life in Pictures; Chiefly Famous for His Painting the Scream, Edvard Munch Was a Long-Lived and Prolific Artist Whose Later Work Is Little Known in Britain, Writes Terry Grimley


Byline: Terry Grimley

The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is one of those artists whose work has never been widely dispersed: if you want to see it in depth, you usually need to go to Oslo.

But for the next two months a significant part of the collections of the city's Munch Museum can be found much closer to home, at the Royal Acdemy in London, in Munch by Himself, a major exhibition devoted to the artist's self-portraits.

Though Munch rivals Van Gogh as one of late 19th century art's great depressives, this did not result in his premature death. Born in 1863, he died at the age of 80 in 1944, when Norway was under German occupation. The Nazis had cleansed German museums of Munch's "degenerate" art before the war.

Throughout his working life Munch regularly treated himself as a subject, creating a long series of self-interrogating works in the Rembrandt tradition. The earliest painting in the RA show is from1882, the latest, imprecisely dated, from 1940-44.

In fact, so comprehensive a picture do these works build up of Munch's career that it is possible to forget that it is a themed show and that other aspects of his work are excluded, like the seminal Sick Child works, portraits of others and landscapes (one of which is included because it features the painter's shadow).

For connoisseurs of circa-1900 erotic morbidity, the show is unmissable. After three art-studenty but by no means uninteresting portraits from the 1880s we are plunged straight into the troubled world of Munch's uneasy sexual relationships, culminating in such astonishing images as the Madonna, a haloed femme fatale framed by a decorative border of wriggling sperm.

Images like this, contemporary with the famous The Scream (an early version of this places it in the line of self-portraits) establish a linkage of sex-birth-death, relentless and indifferent, which drains man of his free will - an idea made explicit in Vampire, in which a woman sinks her teeth into a helpless man's neck. Having devised his images Munch treated them as archetypes, working them over and over in paintings, drawings and prints.

Clearly Munch's relationships with women were not easy. But then much of this comes with the intellectual spirit of the age, giving a more artistically advanced expression to images taken more or less ready-made from the cabinet of horrors which is European Symbolism, a movement still scarcely visible in this country. The Self Portrait with Cigarette, painted in 1895 when Munch was living in Berlin, suggests the possible influence of the German Symbolist Franz von Stuck.

There is an interesting suggestion that to some extent Munch's paranoid attitude came secondhand from his friend, the playwright August Strindberg. But if so it was certainly fuelled at first hand by his stormy relationship with Tulla Larsen, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant who pursued him around Europe. …

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