London: “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” @ the British Museum

I was intrigued by the advertisements I saw for “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” at the British Museum, which runs until 21st July, so I decided to pop along to see it a couple of weeks ago. Before visiting this exhibition, my knowledge of Edvard Munch was pretty much limited to The Scream. I’m not even confident I can pronounce his name correctly (“Moonck?” “Monk?” “Monk-ch?”), which is why I ordered my ticket online, but the exhibition doesn’t seem to usually book up in advance, so there’s probably no need to do the same unless you share my fear of being laughed at by ticket desk staff.  I only just realised that the British Museum offers discounted tickets on Mondays; the exhibition is normally £17, but drops down to £14 on Mondays, so was only £7 with my Art Pass discount.

The exhibition was held in Room 35, which is one of the smaller galleries inside the big central column structure in the middle of the BM (their large exhibition gallery is currently hosting “Manga,” which I’m on the fence about visiting. I personally don’t care for manga, but I feel like other people might. Is anyone interested in reading about this?). I was surprised I was able to take pictures, since usually you aren’t able to in here, so I was unprepared for it (basically, I had neglected to bring Marcus and his camera), so I apologise for the poor quality of the photos I took with my phone. I would say the exhibition was medium crowded – easy enough to look at things, but a little more challenging to photograph the paintings without someone’s head in front of them. I tried my best!

Munch grew up in Kristiania, which later became Oslo, and also lived in Paris and Berlin for a time, so the exhibition was divided up into spaces that reflected the work he produced whilst living in each city. Like many artists, Munch didn’t exactly have the happiest childhood – his mother and older sister both died of tuberculosis, and his father was attentive, but was extremely religious, and would tell him that he was disappointing his dead mother in heaven when he misbehaved (yet would also regale his children with ghost stories that gave poor young Edvard nightmares and had an obvious influence on his later work). He also had a family history of mental illness – one of his younger sisters ended up in a mental institution, and Munch had his own struggles with depression and anxiety, which again, is fairly obvious when you look at his work.

 

He also had torrid love affairs, as artists tend to, including one with a woman named Tulla Larsen which ended with Munch accidentally shooting himself in two of his fingers, which were never the same again. He had painted a portrait of the two of them that he chopped in half after the shooting incident, as seen above (next to his drawing of Nietzsche, which I love).

 

Despite all this, Munch still manages to come across as quite a sympathetic figure, and I loved the work on display here, particularly his wood block prints. He manages to make his work bleak and beautiful, but definitely not soulless. I know the woman in the print above left is meant to be a bit of a succubus (“female entrapment” is the term they used in the exhibition), but they both look so damn happy that I can’t help but be drawn towards it.

 

There was work by other artists who had influenced Munch as well, like Acid-thrower by Eugene Samuel Grasset (acid throwing was also used by revolutionaries in Paris in the 1890s, and though she looks more glamorous than today’s acid-throwers, it doesn’t change the fact that it was (and is) a horrible, horrible thing to do) and Skull in an Ornamental Frame by Hans Wechtlin, which I just loved.

And yes, The Scream was here as well in its lithograph form, as well as an etching of a dead mother and grieving child who is using the same gesture as the figure in The Scream, sadly based on Munch’s own life experience, but it’s nice to know that although his life was not without more than his fair share of pain and suffering, there was more to the man than that.

 

Although he certainly fitted the archetype of the tortured artist for much of his life, after suffering a breakdown in 1908 that briefly hospitalised him, he stopped drinking, which led to improved mental health, and his paintings finally began to sell in Oslo, which further brightened his mood and led to more cheerful paintings (by Munch standards) with broader brushstrokes and increased use of colour. He lived to the age of 80, long enough for the Nazis to label his work “degenerate,” predictably enough, leaving Munch in fear his personal collection of his art, which he kept in his house, would be confiscated. Fortunately for the world it was not, and the Nazis even had the nerve to try to co-opt his popularity by paying for his funeral, even though they hated him in life, and he was definitely not a Nazi sympathiser.

 

I really enjoyed all the pieces in this exhibition, as well as getting to learn more about Munch’s life. I definitely consider myself a fan now! I think this exhibition was just the right size – enough space that I felt I got my money’s worth (£7, not £14), but not so big that I got tired of looking around before I finished. As usual, I could have done with slightly fewer people, but I’ve definitely experienced worse. Definitely worth a visit for the angst-ridden among us – weirdly, I find that when I’m feeling down, as I have been lately, it helps to look at slightly depressing art like this, and know that I’m not alone in my ennui (even though Munch was a lot more successful at it than I’ll ever be), so it was just what I needed. 3.5/5.

 

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14 comments

  1. Nice review. I like exhibitions like this. As for the manga, do what you want. Life’s too short to go to exhibitions that you feel obliged to see.

  2. I saw Munch’s works in Oslo where there’s a whole museum dedicated to him, as well as a couple of rooms in the national art gallery. I was surprised at how small “The Scream” is. And also by the fact that he did several copies of it. The Norwegians pronounce his name “Monk”, to rhyme with “plonk”.

    1. I actually might be going to Oslo next month, so definitely planning on seeing the Munch Museum if I do. The lithograph was small, so if it’s the same size as the paintings, they must be tiny! Good to know the pronunciation, thanks!

      1. I really like Oslo as a city. The National Gallery there is terrific, too, but I believe it’s currently closed and is moving to a new site, opening 2020.

  3. Thought “Pretty sure I know Manga but better look it up to be sure … Ah yes, Manga. No, thanks.” But I have to admit, I would be highly entertained to read your reflections on Manga. I bet they’d be pretty choice.
    Great job on the photos! I wouldn’t have known they weren’t Marcus’s.
    I knew absolutely zilch about Munch before reading this, so it’s a treat to learn about his other work. Like you, I really only knew The Scream. Such a shame the others works aren’t as famed.
    I’m sorry to hear you’ve been feeling down, but glad Munch helped. Sending you happy, goofball Toronto vibes. (Sorry, vibes is such a gross word.)

    1. No love for manga here! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since I hate it, and people who read my blog probably have similar interests!
      Thanks! I seem to go through phases of feeling blue (mixed with my ever-present anxiety), which I’m in the middle of now, but I’m sure it’ll pass eventually. My job really isn’t helping matters (not because of the people I work with, who have mostly been really supportive, just the nature of my job and the working environment in general), but at least it’s only part time.
      Isn’t there a brand of vibrator called the Vibe? If not, there probably should be!

      1. I had to know so I looked it up and you’re right – there is one called Vibe! Apparently the company’s called We-Vibe, which is an odd choice. Funny, Pontiac makes a car called Vibe and I see them all the time. Now they’ll just make me think of vibrators.

  4. At least I’ve heard of Munch – Manga means nothing to me. I like knowing more about his life, and you’ve provided a nice selection of his work.

  5. I’ve never been into manga, but with a 17 year old son, I’ve been exposed to a lot of it. However, I do adore Japanese woodblock prints and I’ve just learned that manga traces its origin back to the woodblock artists of the 18th and 19th century. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a cool exhibit on now of the work of Yoshitoshi, one of the premier Japanese woodblock artists of the 19th century and you can very clearly see his influence on modern manga (https://philamuseum.org/calendar/exhibition/yoshitoshi-spirit-and-spectacle). I’m still not into manga, but it’s given me a different perspective of the genre. I enjoyed learning more about Munch in this post – like everyone else I’m only familiar with “The Scream.” I love the poem that he painted on the frame of one of the copies.

    1. I like Japanese woodblock prints too, and I can definitely see how the ones in the link you included influenced manga. But yeah, still not a manga fan! The British Museum had an erotic woodblock print exhibition a while back that was pretty good though!

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