Madness and Death | Sean McGlynn

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“Tthe angels of fear, sorrow and death have followed me from the day I was born”, said Edvard Munch (perhaps one of his best days). Anyone remotely familiar with Munch’s art is not going to visit this great exhibition in Paris expecting to walk away with a spring in their stage and imbued with joyful optimism. With works titled Anguish, Melancholy, Despair and Near the deathbedMunch is not known for his perky art.

That’s why so many of us are attracted by his work, saturated as it is in its dark symbolism: he goes straight to the heart of human insecurities in the face of love, anguish, decay and mortality. His concerns are our concerns; it’s just that he’s rather more expressive about it all.

Munch was born in the dark Decembers of the Nordic winter in 1863. Madness and death broke his family. Tuberculosis took away his mother and his sister in his childhood; he himself nearly succumbed. A brother died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-five; another has spent most of her life in a mental institution. His father suffered from bouts of severe depression, as did his son, Munch admitting himself to a clinic in Copenhagen in 1909. The artistic results of this move prompted, for a time at least, fresher paintings and more modernists – and, it has to be done. said, the least satisfactory. As is so often the case, misery brings forth the greatest art, which Munch recognized and appreciated: “My sufferings are part of me and my art: they are indistinguishable from meand their destruction would destroy my art.”

Bite keeps coming back to these motifs, even obsessively

The exhibition is organized around six themed rooms. It begins with “From the intimate to the symbolic”, revealing Munch’s change in style in the late 1880s and early 1890s from the more conventional (and highly accomplished) elements to the more striking and familiar elements of symbolism. This transformation can be observed with Summer night: Inger on the beach (1889), a melancholic and reflective depiction of his sister Inger on a rocky shore, which contrasts sharply with his eating in the sun from the previous year (not exhibited here): the latter is part impressionist, part Norwegian naturalist, all airy and bright. The former expresses darker, more introspective feelings in bolder brushstrokes, a nocturnal gloom, and a sallow complexion. It’s the disorienting Munch that we are familiar and grateful.

We can see the transition taking place in The sick child (1885-1886), both a conventional and common theme and a step towards something new. It shocked and disturbed many, with one reviewer condemning it as “an abortion”. His canvas is profusely scratched, as if trying to erase the memory of his dying sister. As Munch said, this painting was his breakthrough in art: “Most of what I have have made since had its genesis in this picture”.

The greatest success of this section is undoubtedly Sick mood at sunset: despair (1892), the direct precursor of The Scream from 1893 (a lithograph from 1895 appears in the next room). There’s no facial terror here, just a blank profile looking over the bridge. so familiar are us with the latter, it’s easy to forget Despairwhich for many will be the most important job.

The frieze of life intentionally dominates the exhibition, a series of never-completed, never-clearly-defined paintings that essentially capture the angst of the emotional crises of life – and therefore, of course, of death. As the exhibition exhaustively shows, he returned tirelessly, even obsessively, to these themes and motifs in oil, woodcuts, lithographs, zincographies, sketches and various other formats: the exhibition halls are full of them.

This is where the exhibition was inspired Vampire (1895) as its poster. A red-haired lady (it’s always red hair for Munch’s sexually confident and predatory women) slips into the helpless man’s neck. For some, the long locks of hair are the tentacles that seize his body, but they or they also represent flows of blood while the victim is helpless but voluntarily bloodless. Here and throughout this section, symbolism springs from the canvases as we encounter some of Munch’s greatest works: the mysterious Dance on the beach (1899-1900), the emblematic Melancholy (1894-96), the troubling Evening on Karl Johan (1892) and the tough Near the deathbed (1895).

“Reuse and mutation of the motif” collects more revisitations. The inclusion of so many sketches, repeat attempts, and reprisals throughout the exhibition certainly enhances our understanding of the artist’s creative process and thought, but too many can, as here, dilute the viewer experience of the exhibition. The balance between completed works and studies is somewhat unbalanced.

He gives vent to his resentment of past relationships with women

“Munch and the Great Decorations” focuses on murals and friezes, such as The Reinhardt frieze (1905-1906), with which Munch shamelessly announces: “I launched modern decorative art. As is often the case, quality can be lost on such a scale, mainly in finishing and impact with Munch. The customary themes and echoes abound, more interest than depth, but Trees by the beach from Linde Friesland (1904) is an eye-catching land and seascape with brilliant light capture to add to the usual intensity of color. In 1914 we are witness to a loss of inspiration and originality with the clichés Storyin which an old man teaches a young boy the substandard William Blakeanism of To the light and the messy and even amateur The sun (1912): all sketches of little interest.

more rewarding are the ephemeral attempts at dramatic collaboration, in particular with, rightly, Ibsen, in the section “Direction and introspection”. The series “The Green Room” is the most striking here, especially for its murder of dark subject matter, especially the desolation Jealousy (1907) and The murderess (1907), the latter having more impact in keeping the victim obscure and ill-defined. Here as everywhere in his work, Munch expresses his anger and resentment towards his past relationships with women.

The ruthless and disconcerting self-portraits capture him up to less than a year after his death in 1944. I find Self-Portrait in Hell (1903) less disturbing than The artist and his model (1919–21; there are some pieces with this designation in these dates). Is this just an honest portrayal of the aging artist contrasted with the young model with her life ahead of her? Or are are there sordid confessional clues of an old goat satyr having finished his work?

The “Poem of Life, Love and Death” is undoubtedly a great event for the Musée d’Orsay and its magnitude has its own quality; but despite all of its impressive displays, it still feels a bit watered down. Ultimately, this fosters a slight sense of disappointment.

One of the most intriguing and appealing aspects of Munch’s work is the way it defies categorization and attachment to a defined movement: Symbolism, Synthetism, Modernism and Expressionism. are all variously represented, all in Munch’s easily recognizable style. His work is very sui generis, which infuses its less-than-subtle symbolism with extra allure. Yes, viewers can project their own interpretations on the paintings, but they are will never stray from Munch’s intentions. Thus the artist and the spectator are directly and personally related. It’s part of Munch’s genius. So the crowd keeps coming.


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