Munch at Tate Modern

On Friday I had the morning off from my stint at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition I mentioned a few days ago, so I took the short walk from my hotel to Tate Modern to see an exhibition of art by Edvard Munch called Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye.  Before seeing the collection, which is housed on the second floor of Tate Modern, I took a picture of the view from the balcony looking across the Thames from Bankside towards St Paul’s.

Not inappropriate weather for this exhibition!

Everyone knows Munch by his famous work The Screamwhich isn’t part of this exhibition. I don’t regret this omission it allows the visitor to focus on his lesser-known works, some of which I think are even more powerful than The Scream which, incidentally, I have seen when it was part of an exhibition of Munch’s work in Berlin in 1995. In fact I bought a poster of that exhibition, the design of which includes a copy of The Scream; it is hanging in my study as I write this.

The gallery’s booklet describes Munch’s paintings as

..profoundly introspective, unflinchingly depicting his experience of ageing, emotional turmoil, sickness and bodily decay.

Indeed. Some of the works are so powerful as to be almost unbearable to look at. I’ll just mention a few that struck me in particular.

One room is filled with a number of almost identical paintings entitled Weeping Woman, in which a naked female figure stands bowed and sobbing within a dreary claustrophobic room. The repetition of this theme across many canvases seems almost compulsive, and they’re painted with crude almost frantic strokes.

This is a painting called Red Virginia Creeper, a plant that grows on my house in fact, but which in this case has transformed into a dripping bloodstain behind the crudely drawn but obviously bewildered figure in the foreground.

But the most powerful works by Munch were made later in his life. He was born in 1863 (100 years before me) and suffered a complete nervous breakdown in 1908. Here is a self-portrait called The Night Wanderer, showing himself as a gaunt insomniac figure wandering around a darkened house:

Then, right at the end of the exhibition, is his most moving work of all. Self Portrait between Clock and Bed, painted near the end of his life – he died in 1944 – shows a lonely old man standing between the clock, symbolising the remorseless passage of time, and the bed in which he no doubt expected to die.

This exhibition is not exactly a comfortable experience, filled as it is with images of alienation, despair and inner torment, but it was a “must-see” for me as Munch is such an important artist. Groups of schoolchildren were being led around the exhibition while I was there. Most of them giggled. I wonder how long it will be before they understand that the world really can be exactly as Munch painted it?

Anyway, I headed back across the river to the Royal Society to do the afternoon shift at the Herschel Telescope stand, which included playing with an infra-red camera to show the visitors young and old how it detects body heat, and taking pictures of them in the near infra-red as souvenirs. To show that the Munch collection hadn’t affected me too much, I took one of myself.


6 Responses to “Munch at Tate Modern”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Munch’s technique is not much more than that of a talented and well-taught young teenager (at least judging by the above), but what interests me is how he captured his zeitgeist with it. Partly this was for personal reasons, but the response to his paintings shows that he struck a chord.

    I believe that the 20th century contempt for technique is a genuine cultural regression, because the better technique that you have, the better you can express anything. This has nothing to do with what you choose to express. There is then the separate question of why 20th century art at its most authentic portrays alienation and despair. One can read the same in Kafka and hear it in Mahler. The latter was certainly a master of technique in his field – music – which is why I can scarcely bear to listen to him even though I profoundly respect him. Some might say that what the artistic community portrays is mainly the same in every era, but what becomes popular differs from era to era, ie there is a selection effect. Whether or not this is true, it doesn’t explain the 20th century’s fascination with alienation and despair.

    Some say this is due to the withering of a Christian zeitgeist, in the 19th century. Much as I would like to agree with this as a Christian, it cannot be that simple. This is because authentic Christianity is a grassroots movement, whereas it is institutional Christianity that has withered, and I for one do not regret that.

    I wonder if Phillip has anything to say about this?


    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t agree that there’s any lack of technique in Munch’s work. You just have to look at the pencil and charcoal studies for the Weeping Woman pictures to see that. They are beautifully composed and drawn with great skill. The paintings are made the way they are deliberately, not through lack of technique.

      What Munch was trying to do with the paint was not just show off technique, but to convey inner turmoil. His paintings certainly do that, and part of the way they do it is by the relatively crude use of the paint.

      You can’t measure Munch with the same yardstick as Raphael or Leonardo, but he’s a great artist nonetheless.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        It seems to me that your first and last sentences are not entirely consistent?

        Yours technically

    • I knew you would ask that. 😐

      First, I saw the same exhibition in Frankfurt (together with my Norwegian class and teacher). (Munch also spent quite a lot of time in Germany.)

      I like technique in art, be it music, painting or whatever. Of course, it is possible to convey something meaningful without virtuoso technique, e.g. Carl Larsson or M.C. Escher. However, I know what you mean regarding the (apparent?) lack of technique in 20th-century painting (and music, for that matter).

      I think that selection effects play a huge role. If someone today were writing (“classical”) music like Bach or painting like Vermeer (I don’t mean copying the style, but with similar virtuoso technique and emotional wallop), I doubt he would be able to make a living from it. There is certainly quite a bit of, for lack of a better word, bullshit going on in modern-art circles. The story of Nat Tate is a classic, of course, modern art’s very own Sokal hoax.

      On the other hand, I remember visiting an exhibition where there were some Jackson-Pollack-style paintings (might even have been by Jackson Pollack himself; I’m not an expert in this area) and over in the corner some early works—which were photographic realism. While one can debate the utility of photographic realism, especially since one now has photographs, this artist clearly had technique—he just chose to stop using it. (Interestingly, as far as I know no-one painted in the style of photographic realism before photography was invented, though as far as I know it would have been technically possible).

      My favourite picture at the exhibition was a variation of his “people on a bridge” theme, but joyful rather than depressing (at least to me):

      This image doesn’t do it justice, though. (There really is a reason, at least in many cases, to see the original instead of a reproduction.)

      In many cases, I agree with Anton: much of modern art (at least that which is well known) suffers from lack of technique. Although I’m not a fan of Van Gogh, I can see that his somewhat naive technique nevertheless conveys something which affects people emotionally. It doesn’t have to be difficult to be good. On the other hand, I believe that this emotional impact is lacking in much modern art. What is claimed to exist is, I think, rarely felt by those involved but comes from feigning the “expected” reaction.

      By far the most interesting participant at this year’s Documenta is Anton Zeilinger, but he explicitly says that what he is doing is not art. 🙂

      I recently read about a double-blind experiment which proved that, though there are differences between good and bad instruments, no-one can identify violins by Guarneri or Stradivari on the basis of their sound nor on the basis of their playability. Experienced musicians were consistent on what they personally preferred, but there was no significant difference between hugely expensive old instruments (allegedly played not because they are expensive but because they are good) and good modern instruments. I don’t think any group of “experts” on modern art could determine, in a double-blind test, what is the product of a “real” artist and what is the product of, say, Anton or me having a field day and a bit of a laugh at the expense of the experts. (This assumes, of course, that they don’t already know the works of the real artist.)

      The real art, of course, is the ability to sell some scribblings for several million. 😐

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Zeilinger invited me to give a talk at Innsbruck while I was doing a stint in Munich in 1995 and it was a privilege to meet the man who went on to become the world’s leading quantum entanglement experimentalist. I wasn’t able to convert him to hidden variables though.

        I recall a TV programme about just such an experiment being done on art critics. The abstract ‘art’ was created by chimpanzees messing around with paint. It fooled some critics but Brian Sewell looked at it and just laughed.

        In poetry, there was the Ern Malley hoax in Australia a while ago.

  2. Steve Jones Says:

    “The Scream” often gets mentioned as a possible image to leave outside a nuclear waste repository as a universal image of dispair, sickness and decay and to warn future generations who may well not speak any language known today to stay away.

    towards the end of that document there are some more modern attempts to convey that message. (an account by someone who worked on the project)

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