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Stretched to the Limit

September 2013

  • John Neylon

A Viking long ship is a mighty fine vessel when the wind is in the right quarter. When otherwise best to abandon plans to sail to the Venice Biennale and to dock instead in Oslo to see the Edvard Munch 150 exhibition.

An inspired decision as it turned out. This exhibition is the most comprehensive of the artist’s work ever to be presented and includes a near-complete reconstruction of one of modernism’s pivotal projects, Frieze of Life which contains most of the key motifs which define the artist’s work and life. Munch is a towering figure from any perspective. Many regard him as the doorway to Expressionism.

Everyone knows The Scream (1893), that howling face set in a vortex of waving lines. It has become the go-to image of a modern zeitgeist and a compelling expression of inchoate grief and rage. But jostling for equal attention are a number of images which plumb the depths of individual human experience stretched to its limits by love, grief, betrayal, jealousy, madness, birth and death. Munch once said ‘I don’t paint what I see – I paint what I saw’. If this is true then one wonders, filing through room after room of this extraordinary exhibition, how did Munch cope with life, or more particularly, his life?

Try playing with the idea of being inside the artist’s head for an hour or two, to see your world through his eyes. This might be a discomforting game. It would require you to not only see the flesh, bone and sinews beneath the skin, but the mask within the smile, the hollowness of social rituals and the despair that can overtake a heart without a hope in the world. Normally, I would say, we can cope with this. Just look away. But this exhibition, spread over two venues, is large and relentless.

Consider The Sick Child (1896) for example. Its subject is a mother bent in grief over the bed of a child, who looks at death’s door. The girl in fact is a representation of Munch’s sister Sophie who died of tuberculosis aged 15 years. In making this painting and successive variations (both paintings and graphic works) the artist drew down on a memory of seeing his dying sister when he was a child of 13. What makes this image visually compelling is that it is so beautifully painted. The girl’s red hair lights up the sombre scene like a struck match. The vigour and sensitivity of the brush work and incising with brush end has created a sense of shimmering energy, at odds with the gravity of the subject.

A similar dynamic is at work in another well-know painting Puberty (1894-95) which depicts a young, naked woman sitting on a bed anxiously confronting the viewer. In this and many other works the combination of painterly gestures, patterning and the flattening of the compositional field creates a force field of visual interest that holds attention while the mind searches for meaning.

The keynotes of Munch’s art are fluidity and focus. Fluidity presents as a sense of things frozen in the act of flowing. Focus can be found in the way certain objects click into focus. An excellent example of this is The Girls on the Bridge in which it is hard to pull the eyes away from a gravitational tug towards the three figures leaning on the railing. What a strange, dream-like image this is. The scenario is made stranger by the perspective of the railing that ignores its compositional obligations by penetrating the logic of the spatial field. This sense of fluidity, encountered in many of Munch’s images, is linked to the artist’s interest in auras.

The trademark multiple outlining which causes figures to shift in and out of focus is Munch’s way of representing this state of inner energy which interested many artists in the later 19th century within a broad context of Spiritualism. Allied to this is Munch’s interest in photography as a means of recording altered or parallel states. The artist owned and experimented with a camera to achieve time-lapse images.

Oslo is a long way from home and Australian Munchs are few. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds two graphic works, a relief print and a lithograph, which convey something of the ‘rough and the smooth’ of Munch’s pictorial style and expression. Figuration in Adelaide painting is a strong, sometimes over-finessed tradition, one which could be invigorated by revisiting Munch’s central practice. Its raw emotional energy is an irritant in an era when Facebook fosters identity charades.

All the more reason to re-enter Munch’s world and let the zeitgeist strike up the dance.

Edvard Munch 150 National Museum and Munch Museum, Oslo, Continues until Sunday, October 13

Edvard Munch: The Girls On The Bridge (Detail), 1901 © Munch Museum / Munch Ellingsen Group




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