Shock of the old

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, British Museum, until 21st July, £17

You know when you go somewhere expecting one thing and it turns out to be quite different? I didn’t know that many Munch pictures apart from The Scream, but I had this idea that I probably knew what Munch was about. I put it in an Instagram post: fin-de-siècle European male angst and romanticism. A questioning of the state of modernity with perhaps a bit of symbolism thrown in…

…I was pretty much right. But oh boy, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst packed a much bigger punch than I was expecting. And, perhaps surprisingly, I left feeling considerably worse towards Munch than I had at the start.

Attraction I, 1896: the Goth is strong in this one

Entering, I saw the monochrome self-portrait of Munch and immediately thought my expectations were justified. Turns out the monochrome is a theme through the exhibition, mostly because majority of displayed works are prints. There’s a definite sense of the goth in more than just the colours: more than one of his compositions reminds me of early Tim Burton. I love early Tim Burton, very much a key aesthetic touchstones of my youth, so I started with an interest in how much of that look could be traced back to here.

You then get a little bit of context about where he was working which is Kristiania (Oslo)/ Berlin/ Paris around the turn of the century, so we’re still on track to meet my expectations. Then there’s a couple of works which make me think I’m going to like this, two versions of a piece called The Kiss. The one from 1895 is two figures being ever so ‘bohemian’, kissing nude in front of an open window. The second version, though, is from seven years later and much more interesting. The bodies are this time robed in black garments that merge the figures into one. It’s a much more evocative image that’s made more romantic by its sparseness.

It’s a similar aesthetic that continues throughout the exhibition, that’s emphasised by the focus on prints. Munch’s woodblock prints in particular are composed of a neat judgement between lines and filled space that creates bold images, whereas lithograph demands a focus on linear detail. But before I sound too enthusiastic, I’ll skip forward and explain where my issues come from, because they’re embodied in a work which covers similar ground to The Kiss in a quite different way. Vampire II.

I was genuinely, and unusually, shocked by this work. Up until this one the other images of women are all more or less in the symbolic/Romantic/ Burtonesque vein as described. And then this image comes along and is so misogynistic. I’m not letting anyone get away with using the wall text to say “oh but Munch didn’t name it” because he still chose to stick with the name. He’s either an emo kid out to shock (an idea which has some credence given the letter about a Berlin exhibition narrated later on), or he genuinely sees women as a danger that drains his soul. Either way it’s an absolute no from me.

Two Human Beings, The Lonely Ones, 1899

It’s at least interesting that the British Museum don’t really shy away from this in their curating. There’s a couple of pieces which try to put this into a wider context: a poster of a female acid-throwing anarchist, and a Munch drawing they call a ‘caricature’ even if that doesn’t really fly given the pieces surrounding it. Other than these, there’s no curatorial denial of the fact that the ideas of the tagline, Love and Angst, play out in both Munch’s life and work in a rather murky entanglement. Women appear to be a canvas onto which Munch projects a desire that’s merged with a kind of hatred or repulsion.

And his Puberty needs to be discussed – a work that the Museum admits in its own wall-notes is inspired by “semi-pornographic prints”. I know that childish innocence was a popular symbol of the time, but there’s nevertheless something deeply uncomfortable about what this work is suggesting. Even aside from the sexuality, the ominous shadow doesn’t so much loom over the girl as emanate from her in a suggestion of something sinister to come.

Munch clearly had issues, and round the corner offers some explanation of where these came from. Can you guess? It’s women! Dead Women! Specifically his sister Sophie, who died as a child. I haven’t come to play psychologist, but it’s all too easy to conclude that this event has caused Munch a trauma that’s both deep and apparently, in his eyes, unforgivable.

Dead Mother and Child, 1901

The theatre section feels insignificant after all of this personal drama. It’s almost like it’s part of an exhibition exploring another person. I don’t entirely get what its got to do with Love, or Angst. Maybe after all the deep trauma we’ve seen in the rest of the room they thought visitors would need reminding that Munch was a Serious Artist moving in Serious Circles.

The question I’ve been turning over on my head over the last few days is whether Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is any good. It’s certainly honest – it’s rare to see an exhibition so open to admitting its subject’s flaws. But then I end up thinking that the art has to be good enough to justify covering such a person, and I find that I’m just too overwhelmed by my contempt for the person they’ve uncovered to see this. At their best there are haunted gems here, but stylistically I don’t know whether they’re original enough to make it worth it, for what I’ve learned.

The Scream is here by the way, a monochrome print which managed to pass into insignificance for me in the tumult of the rest of it. Maybe Munch should have stayed in my mind as the painter of that solitary intriguing work that captures the angst of an age, rather than the creator of works which are almost too uncomfortable in their projections of personal angst.

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