Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, The Courtauld Gallery
Mention the Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch and we all think of one painting – 'The Scream' – which must be one of the most iconic images in the history of art. Is Munch a one-hit wonder? Hardly! The new show at The Courtauld Gallery brings together a collection of his paintings which are fascinating, powerfully emotional and feel intensely personal.
Born in Norway in 1863, Edvard Munch's childhood was overshadowed by illness and bereavement (his mother and sister died of tuberculosis when he was 5 and 14 years old respectively) and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in his family. That Munch is synonymous with mental anguish is not surprising. Freud – who explained much of human behaviour by relating it to childhood experience – was a close contemporary and influence.
We never miss an opportunity to visit The Courtauld and its wonderful permanent collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting provides rich context for this exhibition, revealing some of the artistic inspiration Munch encountered during his experimental years in Paris (1889-1992) when he discovered the modern styles of Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.
'Morning' (1884) is Munch's earliest work in the exhibition painted when he was just 20. A seminal work it is was criticised for being rough and ready, yet progressive artists admired Munch and recognised him as a rising star. In 'Morning' you can see an artist learning his trade - experimenting with light and shade created by the sun streaming through the window and the difficulties of painting white and linen. This simplicity of form and unfinished quality is obvious again in 'Summer Night. Inger on the Beach' (1989). The picture of his sister, Inger, on a shoreline, was criticised at the time (although, again, it earned the support of fellow artists). In this extraordinary painting Munch is thinking about light in an impressionist's way but also in this image his sister's contemplative and sombre mood emanates in the landscape. Interestingly, 'Summer Night' hovers between his first style (the more realist years of the 1880s) and the wildly inventive ways ahead.
What soon becomes clear in this exhibition is Munch's willingness to experiment. He jumps back and forth doing different things at the same time. Take a look at 'Spring Day on Karl Johan' (1890) – here is French Impressionism imported onto the streets of Oslo. (It lead – of course – to further criticisms from conservatives who nicknamed him Pissarro.) And yet only four years later and in the same room, 'Melancholy' (1894-96) with its long strokes of colour is a picture that we would completely associate with Munch. 'Melancholy' is the start of what became the Frieze of Life (a series of paintings from the 1890s, which dealt with the themes love, illness and death which include the 'The Scream').
Moving on into the main room, 'Evening on Karl Johan' (1892) also part of the Frieze of Life is a visual representation of traumatic memory. The ghostly skeletal faces are so recognisable as a precursor to 'The Scream' painted a year later in 1893. Also in this room and central to the Frieze of Life is 'Women in Three Stages' (1894). It is uncomfortable, if powerful viewing. The young girl in virginal white on the left of the painting becomes a mature nude in the middle and a white-faced widow dressed in black on the right. To the far right there is man in the shadows, cut off from the women's world by a tree trunk. The male figure resembles the man in 'Melancholy' and will become an archetypal figure in Munch's work (possibly Munch himself?).
Experimentation isn't over, in yet another phase, Munch started painting directly on the beach and in 'Bathing Boys' (1904-05) he embraces German expressionist work. In 1905 suffering from a mental breakdown he checked into a Copenhagen clinic. 'Self-Portrait in the Clinic' (1909) [see top of page] is a sunny (goodbye, Scandi noir!) picture in yet another style! This time the brush by brush strokes appear to rebuild him as a man and are a gateway to a way of working for the rest of his life.
'The Scream', I have now learned, is just one example in a body of Munch's emotionally-charged works. Don't miss the opportunity to see this collection – there is so much more to Munch that his most famous work.
Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen
Book tickets here Under18s go free, tickets for the exhibition include gallery entry
Runs until 4th September
Anya Waddington 21 June 2022