It was quite a way to spend the last Sunday of the Olympics. I spent the early afternoon watching insufficiently clothed men pinning each other to the floor. As the Cuban freestyle wrestler used his bulging groin to achieve a point-scoring headlock, I thought how fortunate his Kazakhstani opponent was. As other sports have modernised, and technology has altered the way they are contested, the only difference between the version played in ancient Greece and the Freestyle Wrestling of today is the addition of clothing. If those two opponents had been slugging it out on the sides of Mount Olympus, Cuba would pretty much have been tea-bagging Khazakhstan.
Anyway, I’m not sure if there’s a link between the Olympic Freestyle Wresting and the trip after to see Munch at Tate Modern but perhaps you could compare the technologically indifferent history of wrestling through the millennia with the stability of the world in the thousands of years preceding Munch. Then came the change and chaos of the late nineteenth century witnessed by Munch, ever-present in his work, which could also be experienced, as one stepped through the exhibition doors.
Yep, that’s tenuous. But if you can think of a better one, feel free to disclose below.
First of all, a disclaimer: I am a big fan of Edvard Munch. The following is unashamedly biased. I’ve always thought that if I could paint like anyone there would be worse people to imitate than he. It’s not simply the technique, of course, although the technique is masterful, experimental and mysterious – it’s the truth and admission of human frailty that exudes from every chalk mark, line drawing, etch and paint stroke. His children, as he referred to his pictures, are not just extensions of his own life; they are the children of the end of the nineteenth century, the fin-de-siècle. A generation that could not hope to understand the implications of the unprecedented levels of change they were experiencing.
Even if you think you know nothing about art, most of the Western world knows about Munch through one work. Indeed our good friend The Scream adorns the walls of countless student bedrooms; you’ll find it on coffee mugs, key rings, wall calendars and t-shirts, in films, popular cartoons, and in fancy dress shops. Earlier this year, at $120m, one version became to most expensive artwork ever to sell at auction. Perhaps in some way or at some point we have all been able to relate to the raw emotion summoned by the image. Although I realise Homer is trivialising that last sentence somewhat.
So, this show leaves out one of the most iconic images in world art. But by doing so, it allows us to make up more freely our own mind about his legitimacy as an artist. From my point of view at least, the show does what it needs to do. Whether we’ve seen it in the flesh or not, we know The Scream well enough anyway. This show is about giving the rest of his work a chance.
I found myself barely able to look at The Sick Child – the painting that recalls his sister’s death from tuberculosis, so outward is the expression of Munch’s pain in the oil. He described it as his break through work – the time he first achieved his desire to document his life. “Thou shalt write thy life” was the line he took to heart from a parody of the Ten Commandments written on a napkin by Hans Jaeger, the leader of Kristiania’s (Oslo) bohemian set-up at the time.
To know Munch’s work is to know the artist himself. The exhibition does well to show the different media that he worked in, that collectively form the disturbed biography of his life. His lithographic self-portrait when he was 32, featuring his spectral face in monochrome is a wonderfully powerful image. The momento mori of the skeletal arm beneath him draws upon a whole host of similar death-reminder techniques from art history. But also here, in the same year that the X-Ray was invented, there is a more harrowing and unknown feeling about the image.
The Reworkings room has been well-organised. Munch completed a number of images of the same subject. It was not unusual at the time, many an artist made a decent income from selling replica images of their most celebrated works, although in Munch’s case, he opposed the idea of the paintings as replicas, more that they were themes that he developed and updated. By not placing the reworkings side-by-side the room allows you to explore each work on its own merit and then decide if you prefer a particular style.
There are two other highlights from the show. Firstly, the room that shows his works when he had a haemorrhage in his right eye in 1930 and came to terms with an artist’s worst nightmare: blindness. He documented the strange effects the haemorrhage had on his vision, from the point of view of someone who genuinely thought he was going blind. And literally from the unique point of view of his eye, transferred to the canvas. His sight gradually recovered.
Secondly, the story that displays his generally troubled temperament when he had a fight with a younger artist, Ludvig Karsten, in the garden outside his house in 1905. After being accused by Karsten of cowardice for not signing-up to the army when Norway was fighting to retain its independence from Sweden, a fight broke out between the two. Afterwards Munch went inside and as Karsten approached the house to make amends, he found his adversary aiming a rifle at him. Evidently embarrassed by the incident, it was a theme he returned to in his painting as much as thirty years later. The images, like Uninvited Guests, often include the bottles of absinthe and spirits that form an artistic way of saying – ‘the booze did it’.
Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is on at Tate Modern until 14th October
By Edward Lines