So iconic is the image of The Scream that in our modern times it has become an emoji, as one of the most common human expressions. But pick up your mobile phone now and look at the icon: the character’s hands are pressed against the cheeks, as we usually do when in shock or screaming in fright. In Edvard Munch’s picture, the hands are over the ears, as if to block – or amplify? – a sound. The person depicted is hearing, not necessarily producing, a scream. Puzzled? Who was the man behind The Scream, who was the artist, who was Edvard Munch? All (almost) will be revealed in this fascinating exhibition at the British Museum.
This is the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints in the UK for 45 years, and the first at the British Museum. A collaboration with Norway’s Munch Museum, it displays nearly 50 prints from their collection, together with works from the British Museum own collection and other loans from the UK and Europe. Over 80 artworks show the artist’s insight and skills in expressing the whole range of human emotions, from love, to anxiety and grief. The focus is largely on Munch’s most innovative period of printmaking, between the 1890s and the end of World War I. Three prints,Vampire II, Madonna and Head by Head are displayed alongside their original matrices – never seen in the UK before. The tags provide a good explanation of the various printing techniques. There are also printing workshops linked to the exhibition.
And yes, of course, The Scream is there too, as ever the catalyst of the show. The British Museum displays a rare lithograph in black and white, made by Munch after a painted version and two drawings of the image. It was this print which was spread widely during his lifetime and made him famous. It includes an inscription in German, which translates, ‘I felt a large scream pass through nature’. The story behind this iconic painting is intensely autobiographical. While Munch was out at sunset with his friends on a hill overlooking Oslo, the clouds turned red, as red as blood, and the artist suddenly experienced a sort of cosmic pain, inside and out, while his friends walked obliviously on.
While it is important to demystify the myth of the binomial artist/madman, in the case of Munch, his artistic production is very much linked to a mal de vivre born out of an inclination towards and fear of mental illness. Profoundly scarred by the loss of his mother and elder sister through tuberculosis, and by the consequent psychoses of his father’s and another sister’s, Munch lived in a constant state of enhanced anxiety, from which he sought relief in painting, and self-medication in alcohol. Alcohol addiction eventually precipitated a nervous breakdown, for which he was hospitalised in 1908. He underwent electroshock and came out a different person. He stopped drinking and lived for another 30 years, continuing to work, but together with the anxiety he had lost his sparkle. We can see some of his post breakdown pictures in the last room: couples who were tormented and divided by isolation before, now seem to blend into each other, but in a sort of shared defeat. The artist made use of a number of symbols and recurrent images in his works, with old women dressed in black and symbolising death. Strangely, the man in these gentler post madness pictures, also resemble the old woman/death figure.
The rooms chronicle Munch’s development, his relationships and debt to thinkers, writers, playwrights, psychiatrists, and other artists of the time, his intrigue and fear of women, his bohemian lifestyle, and his lifelong ambition to put together his never quite finished opera magna,The Frieze of Life, which was to portray each aspect of the human condition in a long series of works exhibited together.
The printer in you will love this exhibition, which shows how different printing techniques and use of colour convey different emotions. And the human being in you will feel less isolated in the knowledge that everyone else also goes to dark places, often or occasionally, yet still experiencing their own suffering as unique.
First published in the East Finchley Open Artists May 2019 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.