Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum

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The Scream by Edvard Munch has become one of the most popular images from the world of art, ever, jostling with such contenders as Mona Lisa and The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Picasso’s Guernica, while Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam is one of the most replicated religious paintings of all time. What is it with the public’s obsession with angst, anxiety, fear, call it what you like? It is almost febrile in its intensity and widespread in its appeal.”Angst” is a German word, but also used in Danish, Dutch and, of course, Norwegian, to describe a feeling of despair, apprehension or anguish. Up until the 1940s, it was regarded as a foreign word in the UK, but is now accepted into our vocabulary. It is not just in Northern Europe and particularly Scandinavia, that it is recognised as a psychological state of insecurity about the human condition, or even the state of the world we live in. ‘Angst’, in one form or another seems to extend almost globally, from America to Russia, from India to Australasia, with the possible exception of all but the remotest South Pacific islands being infected.

By all accounts, and evidenced by his own self-portraits, he was a handsome man, attractive to women, but his relationships were fraught with neuroses and self-doubt, and he was branded a misogynist. He had a number of tumultuous love affairs, but none developed into a lasting relationship, which may be instrumental in the way he regarded the opposite sex in his work. Munch began a love affair with Milly Thaulow, ‘Mrs Heiberg’ as he calls her in his literary accounts, a married woman, the wife of a captain in the medical corps of the Norwegian Army and mainstays of Kristiana (later Oslo) Society, where she already had a reputation amongst Munch’s fellow artists. Munch was attracted to the older woman from the start and their many encounters were described by Munch in his diaries. His relationship with Tulla Larsen, the 30 year old unmarried daughter of a rich wine merchant, was one from which neither would ever recover. He was quite taken aback by the intensity of her passion, and tried to disentangle himself from her grasp. In 1902 Edvard Munch and Tulla met for a ‘reconciliation’ in Åsgårdstrand. There was a revolver in the house and in a shooting accident, Munch was wounded in the left hand, for which he blamed Tulla and subsequently broke off all contact with her and their set of friends.

His friend Henrik Ibsen wrote about the entrapment of women by marriage, and, according to James Joyce, he demonstrated an ‘extraordinary knowledge of women in his plays, such as Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Nora in The Doll’s House, the twin sisters in John Gabriel Borkman and Rita in Little Eyolf ; all with sexuality simmering on the back-burner. Munch, however, saw men as the victims, and his depiction of women were as vampires and creatures that would tempt, seduce, eat up and destroy men. They apparently sent him mad with desire, which, combined with deep inner fears, drove him to despair. One print that seemed to sum up his views of the female sex was that of Women in Three Stages, in which a virginal maiden in white and a cadaverous old woman shrouded in black, flank a brazen naked woman ‘with a lust for life,’ as he explained to Ibsen, when showing him around his exhibition at the Blomqvist gallery in Kristiana in 1895. An unhelpful caption mentions a ‘phallic reflection’ of the moon, which is a recurring motif in a number of his prints, but could be put down to a fanciful piece of curatorial bollocks.

Having always assumed that the scream in The Scream was emitted by the troubled figure on the Oslo fjord walkway, one stands corrected by the same curator, who informs us that it is, in fact ‘nature’ that is doing the screaming. She references the moment in several notes, one version written years later in the South of France, in which he states, ‘‘I was out walking with two friends. The sun began to set. Suddenly the sky turned blood red. I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence. There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue black fjord and the city. My friends walked on and I stood there trembling with anxiety, as I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’

At the end of the exhibition the visitor is confronted with a staggering and unashamedly tasteless range of ‘The Scream’ merchandise including the usual tea towels, key rings, tote bags, cards and note-books within the exit-through-the-shop retail experience. One would be hard-pushed to think of objects that could not be imprinted with ‘The Scream’ motif, and that includes maybe condoms or riding crops, but fear not, help is at hand in the BM shop, where one can find that special gift or souvenir, with ‘haunting imagery of raw human emotion, from love and desire to jealousy, loneliness and grief’, including ‘The Scream’ silver necklaces at £150, ‘The Scream’ silver cuff-links at £165, ‘The Scream’ umbrellas, iPhone covers, silk scarves, nail file sets, pin badges, candles, napkins, magnetic finger puppets, erasers, spatulas, kaleidoscopes, porcelain vases, cups, mugs or plates, pencil-sets, neck-ties and glasses.

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