Too Much of a Good Thing

Taking advantage of my membership of the British Museum, I made a couple of visits to the Munch exhibition there and also attended two lectures that had been arranged to complement the exhibition. The first talk was by Andrew Graham Dixon, who spoke about The Scream while the second lecture was by Janina Ramirez who spoke about Emotion in Munch’s Art. I then made a second visit to the exhibition which helped to consolidate what I had heard in the talks.

Dixon gave some interesting background to Munch’s influences, how a lack of teaching in Scandinavia resulted in Munch being drawn into the German Circle and tradition.

He said that Munch’s described ambition was “to paint the soul” and he described how The Scream developed. Munch was walking with friends one evening when the sky turned blood red. Munch stopped, feeling exhausted, while his friends walked on. In 1892 Munch wrote “I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. Dixon described this as “suddenly the hostility of the universe is engulfing him”. He stated that “The Scream doesn’t seem to grow old”. This he attributed to what the image was portraying

  • Alienation
  • Life in the city where you hardly know anyone

And that as that describes how many people live today can be quite shocking and that may be why The Scream still resonates.

Janina Ramirez spoke about emotion in Munch’s work, and how this tended to get deeper and more despairing as time went on. She spoke particularly about the death of Munch’s sister and how deeply this affected him and his work.

One point she made gave cause for thought, she said that the “need for art to be hyper-realistic ended with the advent of photography. Art moved on to picture the imagined, what is in our dreams, something that photography cannot do”.  I think the important phrase here is that art does not need to be hyper-realistic any more, photorealism as an art form has not disappeared, Richard Estes is a good example of a practitioner in this field. So maybe photography stimulated artists away from realism to a more emotional response.

Munch was clearly a troubled individual, and the intensity of his emotions clearly emerged from the images that he produced. None more so than his portrayal of a dying child. He was, apparently, greatly affected by the death, as a child, of his sister from tuberculosis. The images on display show raw emotion in how they convey the scene.

The exhibition is of Munch’s prints, although some paintings have been borrowed for the duration to complement the display. Prints can sometimes be considered inferior to original paintings. I’m not sure why, perhaps it is something to do with the uniqueness of the painting compared to the fact that a number of copies of the print can be produced. This is certainly the case when considering the value of an image from a monetary rather than an aesthetic point of view. The exhibition, however, t showed to me how prints, in the hands of someone hugely skilled, can still have the same emotional effect as paintings. There was an oil painting of The Sick Child alongside prints he produced of the same subject. To me all three had the same intensity and raw emotional power.

It would be impossible to write about the exhibition without mentioning The Scream. I have mentioned above how the image developed. In fact Munch produced several versions, in paint and pastels , as well as a lithograph stone.

Most people are familiar with the paint or pastel version of the image, but I think that the lithograph displayed in the exhibition has more intensity. The monochrome nature of the print and the way the sky and background has been reproduced with clear, distinct lines, focuses the viewers attention on the face of the subject and what he is experiencing. The paint and pastel versions perhaps leave a different impression, one of the emotional impact of the overall scene rather than the individual experiencing it.

Edvard Munch [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

One aspect that was not so enjoyable was exiting the exhibition via the museum shop. The number of objects displayed for sale that featured an image of The Scream was bewildering. There were so many that I started to list down what you could buy that featured the image:

  • Nail files
  • Tee shirts
  • Tea towels
  • Tote bags
  • Sticky note pads
  • Finger puppets
  • Magnets
  • Travelcard holders
  • Key rings
  • Pencil cases
  • Kaleidoscope
  • Mugs
  • Plates
  • Vases
  • Spatula
  • Notebook
  • Erasers

There were so many I may have missed a few. I know that museums/galleries have these shops after an exhibition to maximise sales and produce income for the institution, but I did find that it detracted somewhat. But then I needn’t have stayed and counted, I could have just walked straight out – but I do think that you can have too much of a good thing!