Jef­frey Mey­ers

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Jef­frey Mey­ers

An­gels of Death

Ed­vard Munch: Be­tween the Clock and the Bed, Ed. Gary Gar­rels

and oth­ers, with a preface [by the pop­u­lar Nor­we­gian writer] Karl Ove Knaus­gaard and four es­says, Yale Univer­sity Press, July 2017, pp.152, £35.00 (Hard­cover)

The ex­hi­bi­tion takes place at the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum in New York and the Munch Mu­seum in Oslo, in 2017-18

Ed­vard Munch (1863-1944) was the son of an army doc­tor and vi­o­lent re­li­gious fa­natic. His mother died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis when he was five years old and his favourite sis­ter, So­phie, died of the same dis­ease when he was four­teen. Munch later re­called:

I came into the world as a sick be­ing—in sick sur­round­ings. My youth was spent in a sickbed. . . . Dis­ease, insanity and death were the black an­gels that sur­rounded my cra­dle, and have fol­lowed me through­out my life. . . . In child­hood I al­ways felt I was treated un­justly, with­out a mother, sick, and with the threat of pun­ish­ment in Hell hang­ing over my head.

Al­co­holism, hal­lu­ci­na­tions and par­tial paral­y­sis caused his eight-month phys­i­cal col­lapse and men­tal break­down in 1908. His con­fine­ment and elec­tric shock treat­ments in a Copen­hagen men­tal asy­lum help ex­plain the agony in his art.

Munch was the Kafka of paint­ing. Both doom-laden artists hated their fa­thers. They were neuras­thenic in­valids, built (as Munch wrote) ‘of hope­less ma­te­rial, of old rot­ten wood’ and poi­soned by con­sump­tion. Seductive celi­bates, they needed lone­li­ness to cre­ate their icons of angst.

These self-loathing out­casts, driven by mor­bid melan­choly and patho­log­i­cal guilt, came ‘fright­ened into the world and lived in per­pet­ual fear of life and of peo­ple.’ Both felt the sex­ual act was a form of ex­quis­ite tor­ture.

In this cat­a­logue Richard Shiff, re­peat­ing his ar­gu­ment in­stead of per­suad­ing his read­ers, claims that Munch’s ca­reer was ‘pe­riph­eral.’ But Munch, like Van Gogh, fun­da­men­tally changed mod­ern Euro­pean art in the late nine­teenth cen­tury. Their deeply per­sonal and orig­i­nal styles, force­ful brush­work and rough ap­pli­ca­tion of paint, emo­tion­ally charged pic­tures and tragic insanity, helped es­tab­lish the idea of the artist as so­cial out­sider and the be­lief that men­tal ill­ness sparked his ge­nius. Munch’s ver­sion of Starry Night, how­ever, with its dark land­scape and dis­tant vil­lage, its un­du­lat­ing coast and float­ing skyscape, is dif­fer­ent from Van Gogh’s pul­sat­ing and apoc­a­lyp­tic Starry Night, in which the swirling sky threat­ens to oblit­er­ate the tran­quil vil­lage. Munch’s Self-Por­trait with Hand un­der Cheek, his homage to Van Gogh, has the same pen­sive pose as Van Gogh’s more trou­bled and seis­mic (even the plant seems to trem­ble) por­trait of Dr. Ga­chet, who had treated his men­tal ill­ness.

Munch’s quintessen­tially mod­ern in­ner tur­moil, hope­less­ness and de­spair, his raw mis­ery, psy­cho­log­i­cal pen­e­tra­tion and vis­ual im­pact, his ex­pres­sion of vi­o­lent emo­tions, led di­rectly to the self-pun­ish­ing Ex­pres­sion­ist self­por­traits of Egon Schiele and the dark Nordic vi­sion of Ing­mar Bergman. It was, as Eliot wrote in ‘The Love Song of J. Al­fred Prufrock,’ ‘as if a magic lan­tern threw [his] nerves in pat­terns on a screen.’

The young Munch be­gan as a con­ven­tional artist un­til he found his ma­ture style and be­gan to look like him­self. In his sixty-year ca­reer he cre­ated about 1,700 paint­ings and 30,000 prints, and left his work to the city of Oslo, site of the Munch Mu­seum. In a weird prac­tice, he ‘weath­ered’ some pic­tures by leav­ing them out in the rain and in­tro­duced un­ex­pected changes by bat­ter­ing their al­ready wounded sub­jects. He ap­peared in over 300 ex­hi­bi­tions—many of them con­tro­ver­sial and scan­dalous. In 1937 his works were con­demned by the Nazis in their show of “De­gen­er­ate Art.” Un­like the Nor­we­gian nov­el­ist Knut Ham­sun, who col­lab­o­rated with the

Nazis, Munch re­jected the Nazi over­tures dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of Nor­way.

The su­perb San Fran­cisco ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes about forty-five ma­jor works from the 1880s to the 1940s, and ar­ranges them the­mat­i­cally by self-por­traits, tor­mented love scenes, and mor­bid spec­ta­cles of dis­ease and death. The es­says in the cat­a­logue de­scribe Munch’s self-por­traits, artis­tic tech­niques, busi­ness acu­men and so-called pe­riph­er­al­ity. There is a chronol­ogy and fifty-one colour plates but with no com­men­tary on them.

In Self-Por­trait with Brushes Munch, re­puted to be the hand­somest man in Nor­way, stands full-length and full-face on a slanted brown floor and in front of a di­vided deep blue and pale olive wall. He wears a black frock coat, grey trousers and pol­ished shoes, set off by a blue stock around a high stiff white col­lar, and clasps sev­eral paint brushes tipped in bright red. His long nar­row face, ac­cen­tu­ated by a thin mous­tache, con­fronts the viewer with a bravely self-con­fi­dent ex­pres­sion.

Munch’s spooky Self-Por­trait with Cig­a­rette il­lu­mi­nates his in­tense stare and strik­ing fea­tures as he rises out of the mist and is en­veloped by clouds of smoke that fade into the murky back­ground. (This bold pic­ture in­flu­enced Max Beck­mann’s Self-Por­trait in Tuxedo, in which he also flour­ished a cig­a­rette.) In Munch’s The Night Wan­derer, painted thirty years later, the haunted in­som­niac is iso­lated and ex­hausted. Hol­low-eyed and dream­ily dis­tracted, he is bent over and con­fined in a claus­tro­pho­bic room whose win­dows look out onto an end­lessly dark and gloomy north­ern night. But when freed from con­fine­ment in the out­door De­spair, the heavy-lid­ded fig­ure, who stands on a wooden bridge above a swirling land­scape and be­neath a blood-streaked sky, is deeply de­pressed. An­other out­door scene, Red Vir­ginia Creeper, also fails to pro­vide the so­lace of na­ture. It por­trays the ex­treme ten­sion of a wide-eyed man, placed in the fore­ground in front of a vo­ra­cious plant that claws, crawls and cov­ers an ap­par­ently blood­soaked house.

Love in Munch’s pic­tures, in­spired by jeal­ousy and his own dis­as­trous li­aisons, is ‘be­got­ten by De­spair upon Im­pos­si­bil­ity’. In 1902, for

ex­am­ple, dur­ing Munch’s vi­o­lent breakup with his fi­ancée Tulla Larsen, they strug­gled for a gun and he shot him­self in the mid­dle fin­ger of his (for­tu­nately) left hand. In The Dance of Life— more like The Dance of Death—the kiss re­sem­bles an as­sault. The Death of Marat is Munch’s homage to Jacques-Louis David’s por­trait of the French rev­o­lu­tion­ary who was mur­dered while treat­ing his skin dis­ease in a bath. In Munch’s ver­sion, which gives his own suf­fer­ing a heroic di­men­sion, the naked man is stretched out on his fun­eral bier, his right arm dangling down to the floor (as in David) and his body ap­par­ently ex­hausted by his sex­ual ef­forts. The naked, red-haired woman, in a rigid frontal pos­ture with her arms hang­ing straight down and feet touch­ing at the heels, stands be­side him and bi­sects his prone body. She is com­pletely iso­lated from her lover and both of them seem mis­er­able. As Con­rad ob­served in Heart of Dark­ness, ‘We live, as we dream, alone.’

In Sep­a­ra­tion the griev­ing man with down­cast eyes clutches his bleed­ing heart. The wraith­like, fea­ture­less woman glides down a curv­ing path and away from him, but her long, un­du­lat­ing blonde hair re­fuses to re­lease him and curls around his neck. Even Munch’s Madonna— naked, full-breasted, snake-tressed, haloed, vam­piric and quasi-or­gas­mic—as­sumes the cruel pos­ture of the cru­ci­fix­ion.

No one has no­ticed the pro­found in­flu­ence of De­gas’s In­te­rior: The Rape on Munch’s Ashes, where the men and women re­verse po­si­tions and roles. In De­gas the woman crouches on the left and the man stands on the right. In Munch the man crouches on the left and the woman stands on the right. In both paint­ings the bare-shoul­dered woman is dressed in a white shift, and in both the lovers have had sex but are now phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally sep­a­rated by the bright space be­tween them—a gulf that can never be bridged. A se­ries of con­trasts struc­ture both paint­ings: black­white, stand­ing-crouch­ing, dressed-un­dressed, straight-curved, fac­ing in-fac­ing out. Both an­tag­o­nists share a ter­ri­ble kind of in­ti­macy. Both pic­tures por­tray dis­con­cert­ing emo­tions, an an­guished at­mos­phere and the dam­ag­ing emo­tional ef­fects of sex­ual pas­sion. De­gas’s most fas­ci­nat­ing paint­ing is sad, brood­ing and enig­matic. Munch’s pic­ture makes the woman

re­spon­si­ble for the man’s pain and grief, and por­trays him­self as the vic­tim.

Edgar Poe fa­mously de­clared, ‘the death of a beau­ti­ful woman is, un­ques­tion­ably, the most po­et­i­cal topic in the world’. Like Poe’s sto­ries, Munch’s ob­ses­sional and trau­matic deathbed scenes are un­bear­ably sad. The bed, site of con­cep­tion, is also the place where most things end. No pa­tient ever re­cov­ers, there ap­pears to be an in­audi­ble death rat­tle and (as in Poe) the dy­ing women seem to be placed in their coffins while still alive. Even the fam­ily mourn­ers, like the mori­bundi in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Moun­tain, seem half-dead and des­tined for the still more strait­ened cir­cum­stances of the grave.

In the ghastly In­her­i­tance the pa­thetic ho­muncu­lus, rav­aged by the red syphilitic chan­cres that burst through his skin like bul­let holes, lies like a pietà on the lap of his red-faced weep­ing mother. Munch did a post­hu­mous por­trait of Ni­et­zsche, whom he called ‘the man to whom I owe a greater debt of grat­i­tude than to any other hu­man be­ing,’ and who died in­sane of ter­tiary syphilis. In the por­trait Ni­et­zsche has a high fore­head, strong nose and thick portcullis mus­tache that ex­tends to his chin. Like Zarathus­tra, he gazes prophet­i­cally into the ver­tig­i­nous moun­tains. Munch also de­signed the stage sets for Ib­sen’s Ghosts, which deals with the dis­as­trous legacy of syphilis. And his pow­er­ful por­trait, Ib­sen in the Grand Café in Kris­tiana, Nor­way, cap­tures the stern Master with one eye closed, a tow­er­ing tuft of hair and mut­ton-chop whiskers that droop be­neath his ex­posed chin. The win­dow be­hind him looks out on a busy street whose in­hab­i­tants seem un­aware of the tragic as­pects of life de­picted in his plays. The great­est fic­tional work on syphilis, Mann’s Doc­tor Faus­tus, was based on Ni­et­zsche’s dis­ease and ap­peared three years af­ter Munch’s death.

Pu­berty, with early men­strual blood on the sheets, an­tic­i­pates The Sick Child and sug­gests that life is doomed soon af­ter it be­gins. The ado­les­cent girl, lonely, naked and vul­ner­a­ble, sits on the edge of a bed with her long bony hands and knees pressed tightly to­gether and mod­estly cov­er­ing her gen­i­tals. An amor­phous black shadow looms be­hind the child, touches her body and threat­ens to over­whelm her.

Munch’s two mas­ter­pieces in this genre, which re­con­struct So­phie’s tragic ex­tinc­tion, are Death in the Sick Room and By the Deathbed. In the for­mer six black-clad fam­ily mem­bers—three with bent heads, two in pro­file and one fac­ing the viewer—pray hope­lessly for the dy­ing child. A white cere­ment cov­ers her face and head as she looks back­ward at the chest that dis­plays her useless medicines. In the lat­ter, five fam­ily mem­bers hover de­spair­ingly—with clasped hands, bent heads and fu­tile prayers—over the now-dead child. So­phie is laid out on a white bed, ready for burial. In The Smell of Death a dreary door­man ad­mits the last four mourn­ers who cover their noses as they en­ter the dis­gust­ing cham­ber to pay their re­spects to the corpse, al­ready buried and in­vis­i­ble un­der the heavy green blan­kets.

Two other grim pic­tures com­plete the mor­bid sce­nario. On the Op­er­at­ing Ta­ble por­trays the pro­ce­dure ex­e­cuted by three indis­tinct sur­geons and wit­nessed by a vague mob of spec­ta­tors in the gallery. The blood of the vic­tim, who tight­ened his fist and is laid out like Man­tegna’s Dead Christ, stains the sheet and fills the large bowl held by the du­ti­ful nurse. The morgue in Anatomy Pro­fes­sor Kris­tian Schreiner por­trays the last stage of mor­bid­ity. The stiff doc­tor holds a skull af­ter per­form­ing the in­evitable am­pu­ta­tion and au­topsy on the two hu­man re­mains. This Munch ex­hi­bi­tion, which un­leashes pow­er­ful emo­tions, is a valu­able and sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.