Edvard Munch – Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

The current exhibition held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art gallery in Edinburgh is the prolific Edvard Munch.

Edvard Munch was a dark soul, and the short exhibition currently on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, entitled Edvard Munch: Graphic Works from the Gunderson Collection, confirms this. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s prints, of which he produced several thousand over his career, allowing him to disseminate images he also produced in paint further afield. The works shown here are part of Munch’s Frieze of Life, a project in which the artist attempted to map the ups and downs of man’s existence; he called it his ‘poem to love, life and death’. The extremes of human emotion are condensed into symbolic imagery, so that we have everything from torrid love triangles and early death to bloody skies and lonely shores. This is intense stuff.

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

Self-Portrait, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1988

It’s the small details in this exhibition that endear Munch to me: in his lithographed Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm the ‘D’s and ‘N’ of his name are backwards, indicating that he is still learning how the printing process works. This portrait is a gloomy thing for a 32-year-old man to produce, with its strange disembodied skeleton arm lying at the bottom of the frame as a memento mori. With his head floating skull-like in the black, Munch looks as if he has lived too much already, and indeed, with his mother and sister dead, a strict up-bringing behind him and depression looming on the horizon, it’s not surprising that this image is bleak. It is reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 Self-Portrait. Here we see the artist’s face floating in the darkness as he presses a skulled staff into our faces, again as a memento mori, since Mapplethorpe was dying of an AIDS-related illness at this time.

There is an overwhelming feeling of Munch’s difficulty with women throughout the show, expressed in works such as Woman of Three Stages. Sphinx which shows the ardent and youthful virgin in white slipping into vice and sex, only to become a worn out husk of a widow in black at the end of it. We get the feeling he didn’t have easy relationships, and the women in his life were mainly a source of turbulence, bitterness and brooding jealousy. His real life lovers are here immortalised as symbols, paragons of female passion and poison in equal measure.

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

Woman of Three Stages (Sphinx),1899

The draw of this exhibition is perhaps The Scream, one of several print versions of this subject. Four painted versions exist, one recently sold at auction for a staggering £74 million. Being a lithograph, the version in this show is small, perhaps easy to miss, but in some ways for its smallness, tightness and economy of colour (it is black and white with a few red and green highlights), it is perhaps more powerful. This slightly more unfamiliar version of the subject, which is mainly famous through its painted versions, helps us get back to the origins of the subject, the tormented experience that produced this fraught image. Today, in my role as freelance educator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, I was looking at this work with some eight and nine year olds and they said that the figure looked like one of J.K. Rowling’s dementors. That’s right: it’s a soul-sucker, a presence that rids the world of all its happiness, it an embodiment of what Munch called ‘the enormous, infinite scream of nature’, the world falling apart.

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

The Scream,1893

It is easy to get caught up in playing ‘spot the difference’ in this exhibition, since many of the works are presented in multiple, indicating Munch’s experimentation with technique. Printing allowed him to play with colour and mood, and reinvent the same image over and over, almost obsessively. We get this feeling with the lithograph of his dying sister Sophie, The Sick Child, which appears at several points in the show, giving us an odd sense of déjà-vu. The repetition of this image makes us wonder whether he was trying to purge himself of this evidently traumatic turning point in his life by returning to it (he was only 14 when she died), or whether the repetition meant that this event was etched further and further into him. Was his art his therapy or his torment?

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

Sick Child, 1897

Though it seems counter-intuitive to step into a series of dimly lit rooms on a sunny day, I’d recommend that over rain, since you’ll need some sunshine after you’ve had your fill of Munch’s troubled imagery. This exhibition is gem, whether you’re a Munch fan or not. It may be dark, but it’s short and all the more intense for its brevity. Some of the prints are just beautiful for their subtlety of colour, exploration of texture and economy of means. The woodcut The Kiss is just one such example: Munch’s use of a jigsawed single block of wood perfectly reflects the unity of the entwined figures, with the wood grain visible and running through background and figures alike, drawing them together. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope yet.

Edvard Munch: A Poem to Love, Life and Death

The Kiss, 1897

The Edvard Munch exhibition is on at the Modern Art Gallery in Edinburgh until 23rd September 2012. For more information, follow check out the National Galleries of Scotland webpage.

-Ruth Burgon