Film review: Munch 150

The Sick Child (1896)

Cross-posted from the Stoffers blog.

There will be limited special screenings on 13 and 14 July of this film that takes the viewer inside two museums exhibiting Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s work on the 150th anniversary of his birth.

The Munch 150 exhibitions are part of a year-long celebration in Norway: of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), a ‘rich and complex artist whose career spans decades’, as one of the curators describes him in the film.

Munch is well known internationally as the painter of ‘The Scream’, of which I’m proud to say I’ve seen two versions, but not the first ever painted version which is mounted in this exhibition as intended by Munch, as part of his Frieze of Life*. Two versions of the Frieze of Life are assembled at the National Gallery in Oslo, for the first time in over 100 years. The curators wanted to present a chronology, to allow visitors to experience the full scope of Munch’s themes and perspectives, the development of his unique style, and ‘the explosion of colours’. Though Munch was influenced by many styles and painters over the years, from impressionism to Fauvism, he remained confident (and quite constant) in his artistic vision, and it’s one reason his work still seems modern. The works were radical, at the time, and in the early stages of his career he was even shunned by Norway’s art critics.

The film takes us through the paintings and gives us their context. We learn of the influences of Munch’s childhood, surrounded by sickness and death. His painting ‘The Sick Child’ (1896) was both drawn from personal experience and in line with fashionable paintings at the time, in subject at least. The form, however, was revolutionary. As a commentator explains in the film, the picture has ‘scratches like scars, adding to the emotion and imperfection’. We learn of Munch’s depression, and his troubles with women (the film only scratches the surface of his uncomfortable sexism…). Without these ‘troubles’ we wouldn’t have these works, which still radiate raw emotions such as loneliness, jealousy and anger.

The Dance of Life (1900)

Munch’s emotional troubles and anxieties are also expressed in his journals. He considered himself a writer as much as a painter. But an image such as this can be incredibly powerful, more so than words:

Despair (1893-4)

In fact, while Munch could channel and translate desperation and sensitivity, and even a certain naivete and arrogance, into great artworks, his prose is not as successful. His emotions were more effectively visually expressed, which of course is why we know him as an artist and not a writer today. Nonetheless, the quotes from his journals provided in the film do give context to his life as an artist.

When I saw ‘The Scream’ up close on the cinema screen, I noticed mint green and pastel purple lines by the head of the screaming figure. It made me think about how fascinatingly contradictory Munch is as an artist and person. On the one hand he seemed to work confidently, almost instinctively. When you see those colours you believe he felt them. He was confident about his technique, despite the criticism he received. This includes the ‘horse cure’ applied to his works, leaving them out in the open. And so ‘The Scream’, as part of its make-up, contains drippings of tallow candle and even bird droppings. And yet Munch was so anxious and unsure as a person. Perhaps his own art and his artistic vision were all he believed in. As an old man he did begin to shut himself off from the world, being surrounded only by multiple versions of his own works. 

He may not have been treasured at first, but the Norwegians certainly treasure Munch now. He is described in the film as ‘a contemporary’, after all these years. His topics of life and death, as in the Frieze of Life, were ambitious and meaningful. But there’s also the way he turned himself out onto the canvas (or cardboard—he experimented with all kinds of materials); his paintings are psychological, to the point of discomfort or disturbance, at times, for the viewer. His pictures ask questions, as one commentator in the film puts it, over telling a story or capturing a moment.

Self-portrait with wine bottle (1906)

Overall, the film gives a fantastic overview of Munch’s work. Although it does make you want to jet off to Norway to see the works all together, in all their colour and darkness and slashmarks and bird poo, before the Munch 150 celebrations are over…

* A fascinating array of everyday interpretations of ‘The Scream’ can be found in the comments here.

8 thoughts on “Film review: Munch 150

  1. Thank-you for posting this, Angela. It’s reminded me that I have to go and see it when it screens! I saw a trailer for it the other day and then forgot about it again until your post came up. I have rather a soft spot for this guy and his work.

      • I’m not sure that I have a definite favourite painting, as such, although I like the ones you’ve included above, and of course The Scream made quite an impact on me when I first saw it. I think it’s more that I enjoy the individuals that populate the paintings, and their strange and varied faces. I enjoy the long, wavy, scary lines he uses, together with their multi-colouring. Where Van Gogh’s brush-strokes made his paintings bristle with nervous energy, Munch’s paintings tend to be either dreamy urbanscapes or frightening phantasms, though I imagine the two painters came from a similar psychological place. I’m also rather interested in the recurring symbolism of the glowering father figures and the flaming haired women, too.

      • Hi brushstrokes are just so emotive, I definitely agree about the nervous energy. It can’t help but rub off on you when you look at them. Even the colourful landscapes have an element of anxiety (in the swirling, strange space).

  2. A great review, thank you. I have just written a blog post on the subject of emotion in art on my blog The post mentions Munch in relation to his emotive artscapes and I have placed a link to your review here. I am going to see the movie this morning – really looking forward to it!

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