Edvard Munch at the British Museum

First thing I need to say – the oil painting of The Scream IS NOT AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM!  I thought it was pretty obvious from the advertising but there was one rather disgruntled visitor when I was there on Tuesday!

The subtitle of this exhibition: Love and Angst, is a little too simplistic when confronted with the works the British Museum have brought together for this exhibition.

The website begins with a quote from Munch: “We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.” – Edvard Munch

My trip to Oslo in search of Munch’s work was, perhaps, the most worthwhile journey I have made in the past five years.  I always associated him with the anxiety shown in The Scream and only really saw the expressionist painting style.  What Oslo showed me was that this was a man expressing emotions that are so real, so universal and so personal.  Any emotion that he does not express in his work, is an emotion not worth having!

Edvard Munch and the Frieze of Life

His work inspired the revisiting of my academic ability to construct an argument: Love and Angst: The Psychological Roots of Edvard Munch’s Images of Women

and the biography, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, by Sue Prideaux is one that I would completely recommend.

So, with this much background, what did this exhibition at the British Museum have to offer?

First of all, it is beautifully organised; a sinuously laid out walk though of his printed works with the occasional oil brought over for the occasion.  I couldn’t help but think about his curving coastlines as I walked through his early days in Oslo, though to Paris and Berlin and back again.

The work is about his printing.  His repetition of painting the same motifs made his move to printing an obvious choice.  It was also a way to make money, an issue for all artists, no doubt.  Seeing some of the famous works reduced to wood cuts or drypoint was a revelation.  I can never say which is my favourite Munch painting; it changes with the mood or even the weather.  So much goes on in the paintings that you can spend all day looking at them.  What I found with the prints is that he goes to heart of the emotion and lays it out for you.

The ones that stand out for me, if pushed, are Madonna, The Kiss and Vampire.


These three were all here as prints:

Madonna has the frame with the sperm and foetus motif that is described so beautifully on the Nasjonalmuseet website:

The painting depicts a woman whose halfclosed eyes and posture seem to suggest lovemaking and the fateful moment of conception. Gently rippling lines form a kind of cyclical, aura-like shape around her. Above her head hangs a “halo” – not one of gold, but coloured red like love and pain. Both the halo and the title are religious allusions that create a surprising contrast to the painting’s manifestly erotic content, while also underscoring the existential gravitas of the theme.

The Kiss IV from 1902 was created from two blocks, with Munch using the woodgrain to bring the couple together. The label tells us that he did this in two blocks; first the uncut grey tone block was printed and this was followed by the block of the couple locked in the embrace.  This was a painting I did not get to see in Oslo, so to see the two versions here was wonderful.

Vampire never fails to send an electric shock through you when you view this erotically charged embrace.  Unlike The Kiss, which is passionate and everything you want to experience; Vampire can be read in so many different ways, but in the woodcut, the redness of the hair and the way the strands fall across the man held in the woman’s grasp, seem more like bloody tendrils, holding him in place.  It was a very dramatic image.

This was such a good way to increase my understanding of Munch’s work and his technical skill as well.  Highly recommend this!