The Angels of Fear

Expressionist, symbolist or pre-impressionist? Norwegian painter Edvard Munch has trouble fitting into any one of the neat little packages that art historians and critics insist upon employing in order to desperately grasp, from history’s tangled webs, some kind of continuity in artistic practice. Of course we all know of The Scream, perhaps one of the most powerful embodiments of humanities eternal existential crisis, but the works of Munch extend well beyond such famous images. When one scratches the surface of this artist’s life, goes beyond the categories by which he is commonly understood and appreciated, we find a man caught in the turmoil of great epochal shifts, a man stood on the edge of the shore as the tides of modernity turn.

And it is this, the explorations of Munch that escape the common narrative concerning his work, which the current exhibition at Tate Modern captures so well. The focus here is not on the famous canvases of a famous painter, but quite to the contrary, on those areas of Munch’s work and life which, often overlooked, are subtle reflections of a changing world. One may be surprised at the inclusion of cinema and photography from such an early point in this collection as he is an artist not commonly associated to such modernist inventions; but what this exhibition shows so clearly and explores so well, is his position as an artist who internalised and expressed an exterior world caught in the turmoil of change.

Born in 1863, Edvard Munch was thrust into the midst of the second industrial revolution, living through a period that saw huge social change, including the founding of Norway’s Labour Party and the advent of universal suffrage for both men and women. Alongside these transformations, Munch bore witness to the popularization of photography and cinema, two mediums that held monumental influences upon his life, work and thought. His mother dying of tuberculosis only five years after his birth and his sister succumbing to the same illness eleven year later, alongside his father's religious fanaticism and his own ill health, could only increase the tumult through which Munch was to travel.

Munch developed a strong interest in photography and cinema, making use of these formats to explore the human condition both through the application of these mediums, and their influence upon changing world views embodied in the space of the canvas. The prominence of diagonal lines of perspective and foregrounds is reflexive of the technological impact of these new mediums upon both collective and personal human perception, capturing movement in a way previously unseen. Developing a deep interest in self-portraiture through photography he obsessively reproduced the same images, as if to provide a cartography of external manifestations of a deep internal turmoil brought about by an ever changing world.

Munch explores the integral confusion of humanity, something that could only be heightened by such monumental technological and social shifts. The issues of insanity, death, religion and uncertainty, areas with which Munch came into much contact throughout his life, are only too manifest throughout his explorations on, and beyond, the canvas. The harrowing words of this artist state “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” And these phantasmal influences arise again and again throughout his anguish-ridden work.

Aptly named ‘The Modern Eye’ exhibition, at Tate Modern, provides an insightful and comprehensive exploration, whilst by no means complete retrospective, of the work of an artist caught in the midst of personal, technological and social upheaval. This collection may not be quite what is expected when one hears the name Edvard Munch but this is certainly no curatorial failure, rather, in providing the unexpected, in exploring the commonly unknown, this exhibition achieves something that is all too often lacking in retrospectives of a single artist – an unpresuming and insightful exploration not only of the work of the artist, but of his position within a far wider context, an era of uncertainty, upheaval and confusion.

Words – Toby Austin Locke

The Modern Eye runs until the 14th October 2012 at Tate Modern

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed 1940-1943 Munch Museum, copyright Munch Museum

Edvard Munch, The Sun 1910 to 13 Oil on canvas 162 x 205, copyright Munch Museum