Archive for Edvard Munch

Too Brave To Dream

Posted in Art, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by telescoper


One day last week I found this wonderful item had been delivered to my house. Is a new book called Too Brave To Dream which contains about three dozen previously unpublished poems by R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000. After his death, two seminal studies of modern art were found on his bookshelves – Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933/1948) and Surrealism (1936), edited by Read and containing essays by key figures in the Surrealist movement. Poems handwritten by Thomas were later discovered between the pages of the two books. These poems written in response to a selection of the many reproductions of modern art in the Read volumes, including works by Henry Moore, Edvard Munch, George Grosz, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte and Graham Sutherland – many of whom were Thomas’s near contemporaries. Written between 1987 and 1993, these poems are published in Too Brave To Dream for the first time – alongside reproductions of the works of modern art that inspired them. They poems are instantly recognizable as works of R.S. Thomas. According to the publishers blurb:

Thomas’s readings of these often unsettling images demonstrate a willingness to confront, unencumbered by illusions, a world in which old certainties have been undermined. Personal identity has become a source of anguish, and relations between the sexes a source of disquiet and suspicion. Thomas’s vivid engagements with the works of art produce a series of dramatic encounters haunted by the recurring presence of conflict and by the struggle of the artist who, in a frequently menacing world, is ‘too brave to dream’.

The poems vary considerably in style and mood. Some are wry and playful – although Thomas isn’t perhaps best known for his sense of humour, he certainly wasn’t averse to playing with words and you can find puns throughout his work including in these new poems. Others are bleaker in tone, reflecting the disturbing nature the artworks to which they respond.

Incidentally, these poems were all written after Thomas had, after forty years of service, retired from his post as an Anglican priest. He seems to have experienced something of a crisis after his retirement, perhaps because of the lack of daily routine and regular duties require of him by the Church. He wrote to a friend in 1978, just before his retirement

I am retiring at Easter. I shall be 65. I could stay till 70, but I am glad to go from a Church I no longer believe in, sycophantic to the queen, iconoclastic with language, changing for the sake of change and regardless of beauty.

The form of his religious faith was never straightforward to R.S. Thomas but it did continue to dominate his poetry. He may have given up on the Anglican Church but that does not imply he had given up on religion altogether.

The poem that gives this book is title is a response to one of Henry Moore’s Shelter Sketches. During the ‘Blitz’ the London Underground served as a shelter for Londoners – who not only used the platforms as refuges, but also slept there. Moore produced a group of drawings based on his observations of people in the shelters. They’re are revelation if you think of Moore only as a sculptor but in any case they are very powerful images. I can’t reproduce the particular example that inspired the poem in question here for copyright reasons, but it is dated 1941 and is a sombre image of a figure in what appears to be a restless sleep, presumably during an air raid, with one hand rolled into a fist. Here is Thomas’s poem:

Hand clenched
on the dark dream
where the sleeper wanders
far from the crackling
meadows and the sharp flowers
with their smell
of combustion. Alas
that waking to safety
should be waking also
to survivors poking
among the remains of others
who were too brave to dream.


I’ve enjoyed dipping into this book enormously not only for the “new”poems by one of my favourite poets but also because of the interesting cross-section of influential works of art that it includes, including a number of artists who were completely new to me. If you’re interested in poetry or art you’ll find this book fascinating!

P.S. The cover image is Gorse on a Sea Wall, by Graham Sutherland.

Munch at Tate Modern

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , , , on July 8, 2012 by telescoper

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.