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The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?