Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum

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Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum

Sunlight falls through the British Museum’s undulating glass roof and I walk through the court looking to the tessellated shadows on the stone for an understanding of Edvard Munch. I’m an imposter as an art writer for knowing nothing beyond ‘The Scream’, a work familiar to every household and parodied as an emoji.

If a kiss can call into question what is demanded by desire, ‘Women in Three Stages’ critiques the way society demands that women be the objects of desire. And when.

Munch self portrait

Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Self-Portrait, 1895. © The Trustees of the British Museum

So to the exhibition, titled Love and Angst, which soon reads as lovely angst and anxious love and all the shades of intensity in between. In ‘The Kiss’ and ‘The Kiss IV’ a pair of lovers are locked together passionately, their faces merging and disappearing into one another: I’m scared of loving you in case I become more you than me / I want to kiss my face into your face and obliterate us both. On the wall opposite is ‘Head by Head’, another kiss or attempt to merge, and what is a kiss if not a merging of heads? In this first room, triangulating this anxious love, my love of angst, is ‘Women in Three Stages’: on the left, the blank face of innocence; in the middle, the amorous demands of fertility; to the right, resigned despair. If a kiss can call into question what is demanded by desire, ‘Women in Three Stages’ critiques the way society demands that women be the objects of desire. And when.

The lonely ones

The Lonely Ones, 1899. Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Munchmuseet

In Munch, there are coalescences and there is isolation and there is a woman’s long hair, like ‘telephone wire’, joining people and landscapes in alone-togetherness. Backgrounds often seem to warp to the tune of their subjects — see the sinuous shoreline that takes the curve of the man’s shoulder in ‘Separation’, or the way the fjord curves and flows with the hand clutched to the head in ‘The Scream’ — but in a fickle and inevitable way, like one of those silly fortune-telling fish from a Christmas cracker.

When figures are turned away or have their faces covered, as in ‘Consolation’, colour and shape conjure a mood that lets the viewer in on interior life: the mottled wallpaper and bilious shadow around the figures held tight, possibly on a bed, evoke the kind of despair from which we need consoling; dangerous and desirable red has been hand-painted on the print of the woman’s naked form afterwards, like a consolation prize — like a dark joke: at least you’re beddable. When figures are facing us, ambiguity lingers, too. What to make of the shadow in ‘Puberty’, which here hangs adjacent to ‘Consolation’? The shadow is surely too big and out of proportion to be the pubescent girl’s. Perhaps it stands for her fear and uncertainty. Or it could be the dark and inappropriate lust of some repressed observer, since she is naked. Part of what is anxious-making about these marks is that they are so expressive and insist upon a relationship with the subject, but resist declaring their exact nature. Shapes and shadows at once free-floating and tethered.


Madonna, 1895/1902. Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Munchmuseet

Everywhere I sense the pressing desire (Munch’s) to return again and again (even in the choice of his medium: printing) and what comes with each repetition are greater complexities, layers and slippages in theme. In Munch’s own words, ‘Madonna’ depicts a ‘woman in a state of surrender — where she acquires the afflicted beauty of a Madonna’. Has she surrendered to afflicted beauty? Is she afflicted by beauty — especially when a border of swimming sperms and a gargoylish foetus in the corner warn of where beauty might lead. Interestingly, in Munch’s words, and with her generalised features, this woman is ‘a’ Madonna, not ‘The’ Madonna, and who, in the end, has the Madonna-whore complex? There's a simplicity and wryness to the work that suggest that Munch is flirting with me.

Or what about the infamous scream, which Munch swings for at least twice, notably in ‘Despair’, an earlier painting which depicts the very same fjord and blood-red sky but with the central figure behatted and looking away, down from the bridge. Along the side, Munch writes of how he paused, ‘quaking with angst’ as though ‘a vast endless scream passed through nature’. The same subject manifested in ‘The Scream’ now has several questions and confluences for me: is ‘The Scream’ an expressive representation of that experience — of a scream heard through or belonging to nature? Is it a portrait of someone screaming? Or a portrait of someone hearing a scream through nature? Just as, elsewhere, a repeated motif is to depict the moon and its reflection on the water typographically, as a lower case ‘i’, there is a strange and mystifying collapsing of the subject (screaming / the moon) with the subject (I, me).

I’ve become convinced by now I’m overreading, looking for mystery where there is none.

The scream

The Scream 1895, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas Widerberg

Then, in one of the final rooms, there's the anxiety that I'll finish where I started: looking to patterns in the light for an understanding of Munch. In his painting, ‘The Sick Child’, depicting the death of his sister, Munch’s aunt kneels by the bed with her head bowed, her face concealed, so that I must build her grief. The downstrokes that make up her hair, which is tied in a bun, join her with the velveteen and torrential green downstrokes of the walls; there's a throb of light where the sister’s head has come to rest that seems to connect the work to a vast bridge of light stretching back to all the deathbeds there have ever been. Is that the light leaving her, or merely a way of creating a focal point? In other ‘Sick Child’ prints hanging here, I notice a similar patch of light situated at the cheek. But I’ve become convinced by now I’m overreading, looking for mystery where there is none. Can’t a shadow be a shadow, and the light fall where it may?

Towards the forest ii

Towards the Forest II. 1897/1915, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Munchmuseet

Stark and simple, and strangely gentle considering many of these works involved gouging and scratching into wood and copper, Munch’s is a world where vampires are the tenderest kissers and skeletons give the most brutal and dancelike embraces. Like the oldest, ever-repeating stories, these images wouldn’t look out of place etched into a cave wall — and like one of those strange dreams in which a lover’s shadow strangles you with her hair, Munch’s imagination would be right at home blurted out on a psychoanalyst’s chaise longue. Life is as simple as it is slippery: we love to worry and are scared to love and so forth and so on and that's all there is in what Munch might call this Frieze of Life.

By Sammi Gale.


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