Publication: The Times
As the standing of deceased artists of an international reputation is consolidated, discussion of their work tends to move away from evaluation towards explication. This is certainly the case with Edvard Munch. As part of a triumvirate of artistic giants (the others being Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Greig) who flourished in Norway in the latter half of the nineteenth century until the Second World War, his work has become acclaimed iconography and as such, critically unassailable.
There can be no doubt about the quality and nature of Munch’s genius – and this much is reinforced by the sheer power of his work encountered in the flesh. None of the forty prints here – which range from woodcut to etching and lithography – can be found wanting in any respect. Encountering images so familiar from reproduction only augments their impact.
The woodcut ‘The Kiss’ (1902) or the lithographs ‘Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes. The Sin’ from the same year and ‘The Sick Child’, made six years previously, lose none of their freshness and vitality. Perhaps enduring impact is one definition of great art?
Part of this show has been organised into three sections, entitled ‘Love’, ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Death’ and in each category we find, respectively, works such as the drypoint ‘Summer Night. The Voice’; the unmistakable lithograph ‘The Scream’ which succeeded the much better known first painted version by two years; and, another drypoint, ‘Death and the Woman’ from the same period. The last shows a voluptuous woman in the grip of skeletal death surrounded, in the margins, by spermatozoa and necrotic foetuses. With the example of the last, notions of Munch’s northern morbidity and truly neurotic personality seems incontrovertible (the latter, it is now acknowledged, in part to be the result of tragic family circumstances).
But Munch was also a true visionary and absorbing elements of Symbolism and Art Nouveau he created a northern vision to be found elsewhere in the work of
contemporaries such as Strindberg and Hamsun, and nearer our own time, Ingmar Bergman.
Munch also had a profound effect on the course of German Expressionism, having exhibited to great acclaim in Berlin in 1892, after which he started to make prints influenced by the etchings of the German artist Max Klinger. In their raw boldness it is perhaps Munch’s woodcuts which have the greatest impact, as if in the act of carving his spirit found its truest expression. It was a technique he began to develop in Paris in 1896, influenced by Vallotton and Gauguin.
Although Norwegian, Munch’s vision and experience clearly owed as much to the rest of northern Europe as it did to his own county. In turn, his influence on his continental contemporaries and successors was immeasurable and reverberates today with freshness and relevance.