Zombie Workers and Sexual Complexes: How Edvard Munch Foresaw Our Lonely Lives – Review | Edvard Munch

OLove anniversaries. This year is billed as the centenary of modernism, as The Waste Land and Ulysses were both published in 1922. But Edvard Munch had TS Eliot and James Joyce beaten. In 1892, Munch painted the city’s first modernist masterpiece, anticipating their radical visions of city life by three decades. Now that masterpiece, Evening on Karl Johan, has come to Britain on a treasured loan from incendiary Munchs from a collection in Bergen, Norway.

These people really need to work from home. They come towards us at nightfall, their faces torn by the misery of the office or the factory. They are ghoulish gray cartoons of loneliness and sadness lit by bright yellow windows. A woman stares with white circles for eyes, her pupils shrink to dots, while a man in a funereal top hat has a shrunken skull-like face, as if modern life has shrunk it to one of the living dead. In fact, they’re all everyday zombies, their stunted bodies, their robotic pace, approaching in one mummified mass.

It’s the very alienation that Eliot would put into words 30 years later: “A crowd swarmed London Bridge, so much, / I hadn’t thought death had destroyed so many.” / Short and infrequent sighs were exhaled, / And each stared at his eyes before his feet. Evening on Karl Johan prophesies the city of lonely 20th century crowds trudging between nowhere and nothing.

If being the first means being the best, Munch deserves the title of the first true modernist, making it the movement’s 130th anniversary rather than its 100th. But that’s just one way to judge art. What sets Munch apart is the authenticity of the pain. Raw as Evening on Karl Johan is, he is overshadowed by the painting next door.

Their life was stolen from them… By the deathbed. Photography: Dag Fosse/Kode

By the Deathbed depicts people standing over the motionless body of a child. Their agony is so complete that almost nothing remains of them. The woman closest to us has a mask of whiteness, like a bandage, on her face, leaving only small pink spots around her eyes. His features were destroyed by his loss. Another woman has already gone further, her face a pale cartoon with dotted eyes. All we can see of the deceased is a small, slender form under the sheets with brown hair. But we see death in the black-clad forms of the mourners. He entered into every fiber of their being. Their lives have been stolen from them.

It was also stolen from Munch as a child. This painting recalls the devastating loss of her favorite sister Sophie to tuberculosis, which had already killed her mother. Grief infected his outlook on life. TS Eliot’s protagonist in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock admits he was ‘not Prince Hamlet’ – but the young man in Munch Melancholy’s painting clearly resembles the tragic Scandinavian hero as he broods over the shore, her head resting on her hand in a medieval castle. symbol of melancholy as old as the Lewis Chessmen. Munch’s creamy brown and purple skies above a dead purple sea let you feel his mood for yourself.

That’s why it’s so special to see Munch’s paintings up close, as opposed to his prints. This show may be modest, with just 18 paintings, but it’s a lot of Munch on canvas – and in this perfectly lit and perfectly spaced exhibition, you can not only marvel at it, but also feel the ecstatic grief. of its colors. Munch wallows gloriously in his pain. All this melancholy emanates from his luxurious sense of painting. Among the dark green woods of his huge 1894 canvas Woman in Three Steps is what looks like a large stain of blood: he threw red paint on the canvas to create this horrifying gash. Or at least that’s what I assume happened. Maybe they should test to see if it’s blood.

A Luxury Feel for Painting… Munch's Wife in Three Steps.
A Luxury Feel for Painting… Munch’s Wife in Three Steps. Photography: Dag Fosse/Kode

As if the overwhelming sense of grief wasn’t enough, Munch’s art shamelessly confesses to massive sexual complexes. There is a young man to the right of this work, brooding next to three images of women: one is a dreamer by the sea, another walks like a specter in the woods, and in the middle stands a large naked woman with head tilted forward. sexual challenge. You’d think Munch’s male alter ego would be thrilled, but he looks miserable. And in Man and Woman, a naked man has his head bowed in despair as he sits helplessly in front of his naked girlfriend. This bedroom scene is nothing if not unmanned. Munch clearly identifies with this masculine ego crushed in helplessness by the nudity of the woman. How many artists have been so outspoken?

This exhibition shows how Munch moved from beautiful 1880s Post-Impressionist scenes – including a portrait of his sister Inger by a misty sea – to his intense, abstract work. end of century images of unveiled emotion, so extreme that it seems to be missing a skin. The Self-Portrait at the Clinic, painted in 1909, shows why he could not go on like this. Munch’s most expressive period was purchased at the cost of traumatic love affairs and alcoholism. In 1908, he suffered from depression and entered a “nerve clinic”. This painting shows him recovering: at first glance it may seem like a more formal work, with Munch adopting a respectable, serious pose, but then you realize he is actually painting himself trying out that pose, in the uneasy hope of being able to sustain her from now on. Yet his jacket is a frenetic pattern of purple flecks. Munch can’t forget what he saw when he looked into the bloodstained forest.

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