“He was feeling rather unwell,” says Giulia Bartrum of Edvard Munch when he produced a lithograph of his most famous work, The Scream. “Perhaps those red, red, red clouds suddenly hit him, and he conveyed their ripple effect and this incessant feeling of anxiety.” The Scream has become inescapable as an expression of the horror of the human condition since it was made in 1895. Yet as Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, a new exhibition at London’s British Museum, curated by Bartrum shows, it is only one of the many works that capture Munch’s enduring emotional relevance today.
Edvard Munch: Love and angst brings together 83 works, including 50 loans from the Munch Museum in Oslo and a selection of pieces by other artists of the time such as Paul Gauguin and Toulouse Lautrec. It focuses on Munch’s prints, which introduced his exceptional talent to an international audience and allowed him to experiment more freely with medium and material. This adds a new dimension to how the artist, best known for his paintings, captivated the world with his scenes of melancholic romance and despair.
Munch was born in Kristiania, modern day Oslo, in 1863, where he grew up in a family dominated by his father’s staunch Lutheranism. He was beset by illness and tragedy from a young age: as well as suffering from poor health himself, he lost his mother and his sister to tuberculosis before he reached the age of 14.
These painful events never left him, even as he turned to the bohemian circles of his hometown and began his artistic career, and works such as and The Sick Child, 1896, and Death in the Sickroom, 1896, encapsulated his meaning when he said: “Disease, insanity and death were the black angels that stood guard over my cradle and followed me throughout my life.”
The show includes objects – such as a copper plate, a lithographic stone and a woodblock – that Munch used to make selected prints. These tools have rarely been displayed before, and they highlight his unique innovations in the field. “He got bound up with the creativity of it, something I think you can sense with Vampire II, which is a mixture of woodblock and lithographic stone,” says Bartrum. “Munch was one of the original modern artists, and it was his work in prints, in particular, that this relates to.”
Bartrum has organised the exhibition around the themes present in The Frieze of Life, a series exploring what she describes as “a range of human emotions: the innocence of early love, desire and attraction, separation and jealousy, anxiety and death, which formed, in essence, a circle of life.” This group includes scenes of romance and isolation, such as The Kiss II and Melancholy III, as well as those that capture Munch’s fear of and fascination with “women, red hair, emotional entanglement and entrapment”, among them Vampire II and Madonna. Munch would rigorously explore themes, such as in The Girls on the Bridge, a version of which sold at Sotheby's in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in November 2016 for $54.5 million.
While Munch often drew on his own interests and social circle in these works – seen clearly in his portrait of Nietzsche from 1907, and in the harrowing depiction of author Stanisław Przybyszewski in Jealousy II – he wished for his ideas to reach much further, and saw in printmaking a means to make this possible. “He realised in all these emotions key universal themes,” Bartrum says. “And when he discovered how prints could help him recreate these events, these moments, these emotions, he wanted very much to disseminate his images to a wider audience. I think he would have been delighted that they are still having impact and resonance today.”