Art Review: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, Tate Modern


Despite being a prolific artist and photographer, Edvard Munch remains best known for his late 19th/early 20th century ‘The Scream’ series, the poster of which has become as much a student cliché as stealing traffic cones. Adorning hall of residences up and down the land, the impact of this dark and haunting painting has been more diluted than the lager in students’ union bars with its ever present shorthand for ‘deep and meaningful’.

The odd theft aside, the four versions of ‘The Scream’ don’t leave their respective walls (three are exhibited in museums in Norway, while one hangs from the wall of one lucky old Leon Black) so this exhibition had to find a way of working around the missing elephant in the room. Subtitled ‘The Modern Eye’, the Tate did this by focusing on his 20th century works bringing together his (largely) post-Scream painting, drawings, prints and sculptures.

Not everyone was happy, (“That’s what I came to see”, tutted one man) but while it is great seeing an iconic painting in real life, ‘The Scream’’s absence meant we got to concentrate on Munch’s equally as powerful other works without being distracted by the Big One.

The repetitive, compulsive nature of his work was also celebrated, he repeatedly returned to paintings, including in major works like the haunting ‘The Sick Child’ and the captivating, elegant ‘The Girls on the Bridge’. He also liked to uproot key motifs from their original painting and place them in another work, like a static version of those Harry Potter moving portraits.

Still despite its absence the Norwegian artist’s most famous painting was still difficult to ignore; it’s impossible not to look at his work without ‘The Scream’’s presence being felt. It’s there in the long brush strokes, the bleak, suffocating atmosphere, the whiff of entrapment, in the blurred faces, fluid lines and the ghost-like quality that runs through so many of his works.

Even his photography has elements of his famous paintings. His photography was, for the most part, rather amateurish, despite the Tate’s best efforts to big them up. Munch wasn’t afraid to break Edwardian photography rules and the results are are fun and playful oddly modern. Pre-dating the cameraphone obsessed generation by a century, Munch loved a pouty posed self-taken photo. Munch played out his fascination with the blurred lines between the material and immaterial world as well as his interests in the spirit world in his photography using multiple exposures to create ghostly images with great effect. A worthy exhibition of an artist who deserves to be known for more than just one work.

by Suzanne Elliott

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