Mask of horror
As a major exhibition of prints by Edvard Munch comes to Glasgow Neil Cooper charts the enduring appeal of the tormented Norwegian artist
When a daring daylight robbery liberated Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’ from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004, the international art world was in despair. Once recovered, the painting was damaged externally to the extent of being kept out of view for some time until it was restored. As an inadvertent symbol of Munch’s own internal damage, it couldn’t be more perfect.
Munch’s studies of human torment, after all, captured the inner anguish of a generation coming to terms with its own neuroses at the fag end of the 19th century. An unlikely tourist attraction, ‘The Scream’ is nevertheless one of the most instantly recognisable images on the planet. You can see the appeal to the Japanese devotees who surround it and who, when they’re not snapping away with cameras that bestow the work with nth-generation immortality, stare at it like a mirror. Munch’s mirror, however, doesn’t bother with externals, preferring to give back a painfully honest reflection of the viewer’s inner id.
The Munch Museum understandably aren’t letting that version of ‘The Scream’ out of their sight. This summer, however, Scottish audiences will have a rare opportunity to reflect on one of the founding fathers of expressionism’s equally evocative black and white lithograph of the piece. Sitting alongside 39 other prints in the first major showing of Munch on these shores for 35 years, the Hunterian’s exhibition will be the last time ever these works are put out on loan.
‘This is a major body of work,’ stresses Hunterian curator Peter Black. ‘There are scarcely any prints by Munch in the UK, only 19 or so, but his prints are crucial, and came at a timely point in printmaking history. Munch started making prints out of a desperate need to publicise himself, and it was an ideal medium for him, because printmaking has a concentrated power that reduces the image to its essentials, and intensifies the imagery.’
Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘The Scream,’ a work born out of Munch’s sickly and dysfunctional childhood, which was damaged even further by the early deaths of his mother and a sister to TB. A lifetime of mental anguish was laid bare, influencing not just the German expressionists who followed in his wake, but similarly bombed-out generations whose own artistic howls were unleashed from a culture of existential alienation, psycho-therapy and shock tactics. Not for nothing, one suspects, was the debut album by first-generation punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees named ‘The Scream’ (they later released a single, ‘Happy House’, perhaps named after the fisherman’s cabin in Åsgårdstrand that became Munch’s summer retreat for 20 years).
Originally painted in 1893, ‘The Scream’ formed part of Munch’s Frieze of Life, ‘A Poem About Life, Love and Death.’ After painting it, though, he ‘gave up hope ever of being able to love again.’ Such extremes remain a fascinating window on Munch’s very personal dark night of the soul. ‘I do not believe in the art,’ he said, ‘which is not the compulsive result of Man’s urge to open his heart.’
Edvard Munch: Prints, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, Fri 12 Jun–Sat 5 Sep.