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Grief encounter

An exhibition at the British Museum proves there’s much more to Edvard Munch than The Scream. However, says Jane Clinton, it cannot be ignored

25 April, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Madonna, 1895/1902. Image: Munchmuseet

IT is impossible to mention Edvard Munch without immediately thinking of The Scream.

The new exhibition at the British Museum, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, should go some way to changing that.

A collaboration with Norway’s Munch Museum, it is the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints in the UK for 45 years. It is also the first-ever dedicated Munch exhibition for the British Museum.

An unusually large amount of works – 50 in total – have been lent by the Munch Museum. In all there are more than 80 works on show.

The exhibition is divided into several categories including love; love and torment; isolation; sickness and death, and stage and performance (which looks at his theatre set design and interest in the theatre).

While iconic works such as The Scream and the controversial Madonna are given their rightful place, this exhibition also looks at how grief played a part in Munch’s art.

The death of his older sister, Sophie, from tuberculosis when she was 15 and he was 13 had a profound and lasting impact on him.

The Scream, 1895. Image: private collection, photo Thomas Widerberg

His 1907 painting The Sick Child draws upons a poorly Sophie with her aunt. It took Munch a year to complete. When it was exhibited its roughly worked appearance caused controversy, but brought him wider attention. It was a turning point for him both emotionally and professionally.

The aching tenderness of the scene was not merely artistic invention.

“Few painters have ever felt the full grief of their subject as I did in The Sick Child,” he admitted.

“In the Sick Child I paved new roads for myself – it was a breakthrough in my art. Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture.” He wrote this in Origins of The Frieze of Life in about 1928.

The Frieze of Life was a collection of work he reworked and revisited throughout his life. They were a series of haunting images of love, jealousy, anxiety and death in painting and print. Munch himself suffered his fair share of tumultuous, failed love affairs.

“The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death,” Munch wrote in 1918.

Edvard Munch self-portrait, 1895. Image: the trustees of the British Museum

Perhaps more than any other artist Munch, who suffered his own mental collapse, is associated with portrayals of existential angst.

And so to The Scream. This work was central to the Frieze of Life. Its composition can be traced to the earlier work, Despair (1892). In Despair a man has his back to us set against a swirling red sky.

It was inspired by a trip to Ekeberg, above Kristiania (now Oslo). The burning sunset there filled Munch with great anxiety.

“I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature,” he wrote in 1892.]

In The Scream the figure faces us. The red sky is now oppressive, undulating bands of black and white. The figure is hearing a scream. The inscription on the 1895 print included in this exhibition (absent on the colour versions) translates as: “I felt a great scream pass through nature.”

For every generation The Scream has meant something and perhaps this goes some way to explaining its enduring appeal.

Some have adopted it as the perfect image for Brexit angst. For others the scream of nature resonates more powerfully as we witness environmental destruction.

In this exhibition we see Munch’s ability to express the experiences of the human condition and reveal the forces which motivate, appal and terrify us.

“We want… an art of one’s innermost heart,” remarked Munch, who died in 1944 in Oslo aged 80.

For those who have loved, lost, are gripped with despair, have grieved or are grieving – in truth all of us – Munch’s works offer a reminder that you are not alone.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, is at the Sir Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG until July 21. See www.britishmuseum.org/Munch

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