Art review: Edvard Munch: Graphic Works from the Gundersen Collection
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
IT IS an art exhibition that horrifies the critics, and outrages the public. The work on show, according to one letter writer, “is an absolute monstrosity. If this is called modern art then God help us”.
Defenders of the controversial artist, a man once known for his excessive drinking and bohemian lifestyle, accuse his detractors of being small-minded and provincial, out of touch with the art world. “We seem almost proud of our ignorance.” The airwaves and newspapers are full of it. On the back of the controversy, visitor figures go through the roof.
The stooshie is not this week’s fuss over Damien Hirst’s Tate retrospective. It took place in Edinburgh in December 1931, with the first ever UK exhibition of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, featuring 12 paintings, at the Society of Scottish Artists.
The pages of The Scotsman teemed with debate, New Town drawing rooms echoed with argument, and art in Scotland was changed forever by the chill wind that finally blew in (only a few decades late) from the north.
The question for visitors to the show of more than 50 Munch prints at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this summer is: can we still feel the rush of bewilderment and outrage that shook the Scottish capital, or has Munch become a cosy historical figure: a byword for male anxiety and northern neurosis?
The good news is that The Scream, one of the most famous images in the whole history of art, is as worth looking at as ever. First painted in 1893, there are four painted or pastel versions of the work and 115 known prints of this most used and abused icon of angst.
Such is its pulling power that two painted versions of The Scream have been stolen (both happily are now back in situ). The last print of The Scream to be shown in Scotland was at the Hunterian in 2009. When that show finished, it went back to the Munch Museum on Norway, where it will remain.
So it’s a relief that this version, from the private Gunderson Collection in Oslo, is a real thrill: its central skull-like figure clutches his hands to his ears in a defensive gesture, and the earth, the sky and the sea all seem to vibrate. The line between the inner world and the outer is horribly blurred.
Hung alone, on a mud-coloured wall in sepulchral gloom, The Scream works because of its graphic simplicity, the fine line it literally draws between strength and weakness, the clarity of its motif versus the visible human wobble in the artist’s hand.
This particular lithograph was hand-coloured by the artist, so that its central metaphor, a vibrant sunset that the painter described as nature itself screaming, has become more apparent. The red reflected sunset licks at the surrounding landscape like fire and stains like seeping blood.
In fact, blood is everywhere in this show – it pulses through a red-tinted, womb-like version of Munch’s Madonna, a vision not of holy virginity, but ecstatic consummation, ringed by wriggling sperm and a scowling homunculus in the corner.
It is also a spattered shadow in the wild crimson hair of a portrait of Munch’s sister, dead at 15 of tuberculosis. And it is there again in the rosy red of an apple tree in the print Jealousy – Eve’s temptation, a mortal sin, with the emphasis on mortality.
Munch’s art is histrionic, neurotic, at times it shrieks as loudly as The Scream itself, but it is also relentlessly ordinary. Jealousy was about his messy and failed affair with the wife of a close friend. His modernity lay not only in the deliberate crudeness of his images, an attempt to outwit or short circuit the viewer’s defences, but in the way that he monumentalised the conflicts, social fears and failures in his life without ever quite subsuming them into neat narratives.
His women are ciphers, but Munch was always the star of his own drama. His art is a form of obsessional self-portrait: his messy love life, his alcohol problems, and the misery of his religious upbringing, tainted by loss.
This is not mistaking the biography of the artist for his work, for Munch the biography was the work. Like many avant-garde artists at the convulsive shift of the 19th century into the 20th he understood that the new era was to be the century of the self.
Where this exhibition excels is in demonstrating just how driven Munch was to experiment technically. The Gunderson collection specialises in multiple versions of the same work, so you can see the artist thinking through an idea again and again. There are four versions of his magnificently crude woodcut Towards The Forest; five of the seminal Two Women On The Shore.
Munch was playing to the modern print market (not unlike the commercially driven Hirst) but he was also relentless in his attempts to perfect his work. He constantly strips down and strips back his themes to reach the bare, jagged edge.
Where this show fails is that this emphasis on technical detail and close focus on a limited number of themes somehow forgets how to tell a convincing story of the man and his art. The Scream came from somewhere, a place in time, a moment in culture, a point in a man’s life. Luckily, however, it is more than strong enough to survive these vicissitudes.
When Edinburgh took sides over Munch back in 1931, many in the art lobby feared that the public outcry might crush the emergence of new forces in culture. But others believed it was more robust.
Sir Stanley Cursiter, director of the National Gallery of Scotland, was confident that modern art and Munch’s oeuvre would survive the onslaught, “for the simple reason they could not stop it. Modern art did not depend anyway upon public support or public approval”. Eight decades later, in more ways than one, he has been proved right. «
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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