FNew artists are as strongly associated with a single painting as Edvard Munch is with The Scream. Even before his endless memorization became apparent, he was as much a part of popular culture as he was of art history. But Munch has always been more than his most famous work, and a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London gives a rare chance to retrace his wider career.
The exhibit comes from the collection of Norwegian industrialist Rasmus Meyer, who discovered Munch’s work in the early years of the 20th century and quickly became an avid supporter and collector, purchasing paintings directly from Munch’s studio, the paint almost still wet, as the saying goes. This is the first time that his collection, kept at the Kode Art Museum in Bergen, has been shown together outside of Scandinavia. It picks up work from the 1880s, when Munch was the rising star of Norwegian art, through to his “golden decade” of the 1890s – when he developed his signature style and produced what became known as his The frieze of life series, including various iterations of The Scream – and into the 20th century.
“Norway had only really begun to crystallize as an independent nation at the end of the 19th century,” explains Courtauld curator Barnaby Wright, “and Meyer wanted to build up a collection of Norwegian art that would say something powerful on their culture and identity.” Not that Munch’s work was universally appreciated in 19th-century Norway. As he achieved international recognition, disputes between conservative and avant-garde opinion played out. the same way they had with French Impressionism in the 1870s.
The layout of the Courtauld, passing their stellar collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art on the way to the exhibition space, is fortuitously suited to this spectacle. Munch had been fascinated by the Impressionists’ exploration of the effects of light and new techniques for capturing them, but the lessons he took were then deployed for his own purposes. Rather than following Monet in taking his canvas outside into nature, Munch was more interested in painting from memory and from his imagination, using light in a much more expressive and symbolic way.
By the 1890s he had developed this style of painting, employing richer, darker colors to evoke an atmosphere of anxiety in which figures and landscapes were increasingly reflected. He named these explorations The Frieze of Life, and “his ambition was to cover a spectrum of the deepest human emotions and experiences,” says Wright. “Often relying on his own childhood memories; the loss of loved ones; tortuous relationships with women. What makes these images endure is the complexity and multiplicity of feelings and emotions it evokes. As great as The Scream is, it’s just one example of Munch’s extraordinary production. This collection shows why so many of his photos still speak to us so powerfully.
“Morbidity, death and precarious anguish”: four key works of the exhibition
Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892, main image)
Light plays a vital role in all of Munch’s work, and here he captures the creative possibilities of eerie moonlight mixed with gaslight. The Evening on Karl Johan Street is a key image in the Frieze of Life and the first time Munch used these skeletal faces rising from the canvas, which he repeated in his Scream paintings. This is the original image of this now famous visual device.
Self-portrait at the clinic (1909)
When Munch had a nervous breakdown, he sought treatment at a clinic in Copenhagen. His life had been lived at an intense pace. When Munch was a child, his father was zealously religious, and an air of morbidity and death hung over the family. He clung to Munch for the rest of his life and it was this sense of precarious anxiety that fueled his art. This particular work has an interesting parallel to Van Gogh’s self-portraits after his severe mental episodes in depicting a man and an artist trying to rebuild himself.
Children playing in the street at Åsgårdstrand (1901–03)
Munch spent most of his summers in the small coastal fishing town of Åsgårdstrand. Here he takes a seemingly mundane daily activity and transforms it into something deeper. Do the boys make fun of the girl, look at her as an object of desire or just play? Equally enigmatic, is she, on the verge of adolescence, begging for help or facing them?
The idea that emotions are at their peak when people are on the boundary between areas such as shore and water was fertile for Munch. Here he reflects the central character’s state of mind, lost in his own tragic thoughts and equally isolated from the two background characters on the pier. It was the first time that Munch had adopted this profoundly brooding and symbolic new manner.
Edvard Munch: Masterpieces of Bergen is at the Courtauld Gallery, London, from from Friday to September 4.