DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Screaming for Edvard Munch's 150th

The distorted, disturbing figure is one of the most familiar in modern art. If you haven't viewed one of the 4 original versions of the painting (one of which recently sold for $119 million at auction), you have seen the inflatable doll, or the posters, or the cartoons, or the T-shirts, or the coffee cups, or the key chains. In fact, Edvard Munch's iconic image in "The Scream" may be the most used visual to represent the anxiety, the anguish, and the alienation inherent in our contemporary age.

But what exactly was the Norwegian artist, born 150 years in 1863, trying to say with the work considered by many to be his masterpiece?

In a talk at the National Gallery, senior lecturer David Garriff shared Munch's own explanation of his piece.

Munch suffered from severe agoraphobia (among a host of other crippling fears). He found himself unable to be around any type of crowds. To even walk up a street, the artist kept a building on his right shoulder so he couldn't be surrounded by others.

"The Scream"
 "Most people think this is a crazy expressionistic painting that Munch pulled out of his imagination,"  Garriff said. "But it was a fairly accurate recreation of a panic attack he had. He was walking across a fjiord with his friends when it struck. He says 'I felt a huge unending scream.' Notice he doesn't say I heard; he says I felt. The great thing is he was able to elevate that away from his own personal experience and turn it into the universal."

Garriff's engaging, informative talk was part of the National Gallery's current exhibition Edvard Munch: A 150th Anniversary Tribute, which includes more than 20 of Munch's works from the Gallery's collections. Although there isn't a painting of "The Scream," there is an original Munch print of the work, which is actually entitled Geschrei (German for scream).

The lecturer said that Munch consistently used events in his own life to fuel his art. "He makes no apologies that his art is based on his life," Garriff explained. "Without the events in his personal life, his art wouldn't have existed in the first place. He always said 'I don't paint what I see, I paint what I saw.' For better or worse Munch opened the door for personal art. It can be powerful or it can be self-indulgent and abused."

Munch's life was filled with trauma, death, and disease, all of which found their way directly into his art. His Father made sure the young Munch was steeped in the evils of sin and the power of God to punish. Both Munch's beloved mother and a devoted sister died from tuberculosis. Another sister spent her life in mental institutions. "He ruminated on illness and death and it inculcated with his fears and phobias," Garriff said.

During his life as an artist, Munch associated with 2 groups. The 1st were Bohemian thinkers in Oslo who pledged to commit suicide as the ultimate rejection of the false society they saw surrounding them. The 2nd was a Berlin-based group led by Swedish writer and painter August Strinberg. That group greatly shaped Munch's views about love, sex, and relationships.  "Munch had a fatalistic, if not downright morbid view of life," Garriff said.

Munch's Madonna
Much of the discussion of Munch's work centers around his view of women. "His feelings about women haunted him throughout his life.  He was a male artist who feared the growing power of women. He felt they had the ultimate courage. They give birth. But to him they were a source of suffering. He thought they would make him lose his individual identity," Garriff said.

Several prints of Munch's twisted takes on women are in the Gallery's exhibition. They include "The Vampyre," where a predatory woman appears to literally be sucking the life blood from a man, "Man's Head in Woman's Hair," where the hair resembles the tentacles of a beast or monster trying to ensnare the man, "Madonna," which plays with the image of both the virgin and the whore and includes an unholy fetus creature and spermatazoa on its frame, and "Puberty," a young girl having her 1st period.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You still have time to see the Munch exhibit. It is scheduled to run until July 28. Garriff will be giving 2 Sunday lectures on the artist. The Art of Edvard Munch: The Early Work will be offered on Aug. 18 and The Art of Edvard Munch: The Late Work on Aug. 25.

Popular Posts