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

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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

Book Review: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locusts

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – original name Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein – was an American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. He published four novels, wrote several screenplays and two short stories.

Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.

Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.

The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.

Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott