Edvard Munch: love and angst at the British Museum

Madonna, (1895-1902), Lithograph. This bizarre Madonna image of a femme fatale framed by sperm and a foetus is classically angst-filled, Freudian, Munch. Technically, it is a printed from a lithography stone and then hand-coloured.

There is plenty of angst and not much love on show at the British Museum in their current exhibition of prints by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch (1863-1944). But there is also a virtuoso display of world class print-making from a man who learn through this exhibition was a hugely talented and innovative master of the arts of lithography and the woodcut.

The superficial view of Edvard Munch is that he was the master of angst-ridden emotion, exemplified by his most famous image, The Scream. That one picture serves as a casual shorthand for C19 Nordic Noir but in doing so rather obscures a broader appreciation of this artist.

Munch was born in Kristiana (now Oslo), Norway in 1863, to a conservative and religious family in what was a conservative and religious society. As he reached adulthood he joined a small group of Bohemian artists in Kristiana who were rebelling against the repressive mores of their country, particularly looking for artistic and sexual liberation. He travelled widely and spent much of his life living and working in Berlin and Paris though returning regularly to Norway to support his family.

Starting life as a painter, he turned his attention to print-making at around the age of thirty. And whilst he was a talented painter, this purpose of this exhibition is to demonstrate that he was also a very innovative print-maker. And indeed to plausibly suggest that he should be more recognised and regarded as a print-maker than as a painter.

Munch’s personal life was beset with difficulties. As a child he watched his sister dying of TB, an incident that clearly deeply affected him and became a recurring theme in his work. As an adult, he had a series of passionate romantic entanglements, all of which need in tears. His attitude to women was highly ambivalent; he was sexually attracted to them, but was also in great fear of their power, and unable to make lasting commitments. Most of his affairs resulted in spectacular break ups which shaped mucho his image-making.

But while his personal life could kindly be described as chaotic, his approach to image-making was anything but. His print-making career started with woodcuts and lithography but he developed complex approaches to making prints which involved using lithography stones and wood in the same image. Fortunately he kept the stones and wood that formed his plates. They now form part of his archive at The Munch Museum in Oslo and several of them are included in the exhibition. It is unusual to be able to see the original plate and the final print together and gives real insight into his process and print-making skills.

It’s an interesting and worthwhile exhibition.

Vampire II (1895-1902), Lithograph and Woodcut. This is another highly Freudian image in which a picutre of the artist in the arms of his lover becomes instead the artist attacked by a female vampire whose hair entangles and binds him. This is a two-colour lithograph which is then over-printed in blue using rough blanks of wood, the grain of which is clearly visible in the final image.
Self-portrait with a bottle of wine, 1906, Lithograph. You would struggle to be convinced that he would be a good dinner companion.