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Pompidou exhibition throws new light on the work of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch
Queen Sonja of Norway poses in front of a painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, called "Selfportrait. Between the clock and the bed", at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. AP Photo/Thibault Camus.

PARIS.- Edvard Munch was entirely “modern”: such is the argument of this exhibition of almost 140 of his works. Including some 60 paintings, 30 works on paper and 50 vintage photographs, as well as a number of films and one of the artist’s very rare sculptures, “Edvard Munch, l’œil moderne” throws new light on the work of this celebrated Norwegian painter (1863-1944) by showing how his interest in all the forms of representation of his time nourished his inspiration and profoundly shaped his art. His experience of photography and film, his reading of the illustrated press and his work in the theatre all fed into his work, endowing it with the utter modernity that this exhibition seeks to reveal.

Contrary to the received opinion that sees in Munch a nineteenth-century artist, tormented and reclusive, the exhibition shows that he was aware of the aesthetic debates of his time, engaged in a constant dialogue with the most contemporary forms of representation – photography, film and theatre. He took photographs and shot films himself, being perhaps the first to essay a selfportrait using a camera held in his outstretched hand: “I have learnt a great deal from photography. I have an old camera with which I have taken countless pictures of myself, often with amazing results. One day, when I am old and have nothing better to do than to write my autobiography, all my self-portraits will see the light of day again” (Edvard Munch, interviewed by Hans Tørsleff, 1930).

Displayed in twelve rooms and organised around nine themes the exhibition presents an uncommonly rich and comprehensive selection of major paintings and works on paper, alongside Munch’s own experiments with photography and film, looking at the artist’s habit of returning to the same motifs, and showing how his experience of cinema and of the illustrated press, and his own work for the new, intimate “chamber drama” produced a new spatial relationship between the viewer and the pictorial motif presented in close-up. The impact of these modern images, underlined by Munch’s own experiments in photography and film, can also be seen in his use of effects of transparency, forms of energy and modes of narrative specific to these new media.

The exhibition has been organised in close collaboration with the Munch Museum in Oslo. Most of the works come from there, though some have been loaned by the National Museum, Oslo, the Bergen Museum of Art and other collections abroad. It is accompanied by a substantial catalogue, to be published by Editions Centre Pompidou, with more than a dozen essays by Munch specialists from across the world, as well as other original research and French translations of unpublished texts by the artist. Curated by Angela Lampe and Clément Chéroux, curators at the Centre Pompidou, the exhibition “Edvard Munch, l’oeil moderne” will close on 9 January 2012, to move on to the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt (9 February - 13 May 2012) and then to Tate Modern, London (28 June - 12 October 2012).


In copies, revisitings and variations, Munch endlessly returned to subjects he had already tackled. Six versions of The Sick Child, as many of Girls on the Bridge, eight of the Vampire; when one adds to this Munch’s many graphic adaptations of his own paintings, the continuous recurrence of the same motifs stands out as a major feature of his work. A stranger to any Romantic conception of the uniqueness of the work of art, Munch was doubtless the one, of all the artists of his generation, who posed with the greatest acuity one of the great questions of 20th-century art, that of the reproducibility of the work of art. The reasons for this repetition were many: the original canvas might be destroyed, sold, or simply copied for a collector. Munch might want to go more deeply into the subject, or include it in a frieze. Nor should one underestimate the value of repetition as means of catharsis. Through repetition, often reduced to its most simple expression, the motif becomes autonomous; it ends up existing for itself, functioning as a kind of trademark or artists’ signature.

Like Bonnard, Vuillard and Mucha, Munch was one of a generation of artists that took up amateur photography at the turn of the century. It was in Berlin in 1902 that he bought a small Kodak camera and started to take pictures. Other than a number of photographs of paintings, and a few that are souvenirs of places he visited, most of Munch’s pictures were self-portraits. More than to the painter photographers of his generation, it is to the writer photographers of the same period that he may be more usefully compared. He shares with Strindberg, Loti and Zola their obsession with the self-portrait, their interest in writing a life in images. And in a 1930 interview he would declare: “One day, when I am old and have nothing better to do than to write my autobiography, all my self-portraits will see the light of day again.”

There is in Munch’s painting a very distinctive treatment of space. In many cases, his compositions exploit one or two diagonal lines of force that intensify the sense of perspective, the projection of the near into the distance, the cutting-off by the frame of pre-eminent foreground scenes, a movement of the figures toward the front. This manner of painting has learnt the lessons of the 19th century, of Impressionism, Japonisme, the camera obscura, and photography. But it also incorporates characteristically 20th-century visual regimes such as those instituted by the illustrated press and the cinema, with their images of crowds in motion, of horses or humans rushing toward the camera. If Munch often has recourse to this spectacular and dynamic mode of composition, it is because he seeks to intensify as much as possible the relationship between the painting and the viewer.

From the 1890s onward Munch confers a certain theatricality on the scenes that he depicts, through the arrangement of figures and their hieratic attitudes, marked by a certain fixity and often frontally represented. Under the influence of August Strindberg, whom he knew during his time in Berlin in the 1890s, and of Max Reinhardt, for whom in 1906 and 1907 he produced stage designs and a decorative frieze, this tendency intensified. Strindberg and Reinhardt stood for chamber drama (Kammerspiele), an intimate theatre in which the distance between actor and audience is reduced to a minimum to encourage emotional empathy. For them, the stage space had to suggest a room from which one wall had been removed to open it to the public. It is precisely this arrangement that Munch adopts in the series The Green Room – begun in 1907, immediately after his collaboration with collaboration with Reinhardt – in order to draw the viewer into the pictorial space.

As he worked on The Green Room in 1907, Munch also worked on another motif, that of a weeping woman standing naked before a bed. Within a fairly short time he had produced six paintings of this, as well as several drawings, a photograph, a print and a sculpture. This is not at all the same kind of repetition as when a painter returns to a picture many years later and produces a new version. In this reiteration across the whole range of different media he used at the time there is a compulsiveness that reflects his obsession with the subject. No one knows exactly what this motif may have meant to him: a primal scene, an erotic memory, an archetype of lamentation that he sought to simplify as much as possible, through repetition, as he had done for The Scream, Melancholy and The Kiss? No doubt much more than this, for he contemplated using the sculpture of the Weeping Woman as his own tombstone.

Munch was one of a generation of artists whose imagination had been profoundly influenced by a whole culture of radiation, from distant memories of Mesmerism to the current belief in the curative virtues of sunlight, taking in the discovery of X-rays, radioactivity and radio waves on the way. Munch was himself X-rayed in 1902, and given electrical treatment in 1908-1909, and his archive contains many promotional pamphlets for heliotherapy and other such cures. His paintings bear the mark of this fascination for radiation. He made use of transparency effects suggestive of X-ray images, as if he could now see through opaque bodies. He painted the iridescent dazzle of the sun in scenes against the light, the coloured thrum of shadow. His brushstroke seems to try and tune in to the frequency of the light, starting to vibrate and becoming insubstantial, to the extent of sometimes flirting with abstraction.

There is evidence to show that in the early decades of the century Munch was a regular visitor to the cinema, viewing newsreels, European and American feature films, Chaplin comedies etc. In the 1910s, his friend Halfdan Nobel Roede opened several cinemas, in which he hung works by Munch. In 1927, while visiting France, Munch acquired a small amateur movie camera, the Pathé-Baby. In the 5’ 17» of surviving film, one sees again the artist’s fascination with urban life. In Germany and Norway, he filmed the movement of pedestrians, the passing of a cart or tram. He observed a woman waiting at a street corner and followed her briefly. He asked a friend to walk in front of the camera, filmed his aunt and his sister unbeknownst to them, then set down the camera in front of himself and bent towards the lens, examining it carefully, as if he wanted to see through to the other side of the looking glass.

Munch’s reputation is that of an artist of the inner life, solitary, reclusive, concerned only to depict the torments of his troubled mind. In the 20th century, however, his painting is very much at grips with the outside world. He often painted directly from the subject, drew inspiration from things seen, from stories in the newspaper. When a fire broke out in a nearby house, he rushed to paint it. He depicted the execution of Communists in Finland, the panic in Oslo on the declaration of war. He sympathized with the political demands of the working class. He clearly understood that the advent of the illustrated press and the cinema had instituted new forms of narrative. To recount his own conflict with the painter Ludwig Karsten, he used a sequence of distinct scenes, adopting the principle, popular in the early cinema, for simply photogenic reasons, of pairing a black character with a white.

After a lengthy halt, Munch began again to take photographs at the end of the 1920s. A first series of self-portraits was shot in the studio. Playing on the transparency effects made possible by long exposures, an idea he had already explored at the beginning of the century, the painter seems to want to become one with his paintings. Another series of self-portraits was shot outside. In a gesture that has since become common, Munch held the camera at arm’s length, turned toward his own face like a mirror. This second series should be seen in relation to a lithograph of the same period, for it is in fact a response to a debated launched in the German art magazine Das Kunstblatt on the different qualities of drawing and photography in their rendering of light and shade. At a time when Munch was having trouble with his sight, one can see the interest he might have in assessing his own artistic tools.

“Every year, as if he were determined to register the effect of the passage of time, he painted a self-portrait,” wrote Munch’s friend the art collector Rolf E. Stenersen. In the 20th century, Munch certainly stepped up the production of self-portraits, painting more than forty between 1900 and 1944 as opposed to five in the 19th, not to mention the many drawings, prints and photographs. In his self-portraits, Munch turns the gaze inside out. This is particularly clear in the series of a paintings and drawings done in the 1930s when a haemorrhage in the right eye interfered with his vision. In drawing and painting what he saw through the affected eye, he represents his own gaze, sight itself, the “interiority of vision” in Max Ernst’s phrase. In this too he reveals himself to be a true modern, being indeed “a modern eye.”

The exhibition will draw together a substantial selection of major works: fifty-nine of the best-known paintings, forty-nine photographs, and also works on paper, films, and one of the artist’s rare sculptures. The exhibition Edvard Munch. L’oeil moderne relates the artist’s 20th-century pictorial works to his interest in his age’s most modern forms of representation: photography, cinema and more. Often presented as a 19th-century painter, as a Symbolist or proto-Expressionist, Munch proved to be a truly 20th-century artist, intimately acquainted with modernity and with the avant-garde. The exhibition catalogue’s plentiful, high-quality reproductions are accompanied by essays from the world’s leading authorities, making it the new standard reference in the French language.

Edvard Munch | The Modern Eye |

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