I Scream, You Scream

Name one painting by Edvard Munch other than The Scream.

The Scream Pillow! What every home needs! And when you squeeze, it actually screams!

The Scream Pillow! What every home needs! And when you squeeze, it actually screams!

If you’re not an art history major, it might be difficult. Don’t think I could do it if the Art Institute of Chicago hadn’t recently opened “Becoming Edvard Munch,” a show about all facets of his work, not just the iconic depiction of inner angst taking outward form. The Institute’s Jay Clark curated the show (runs through April 26, if you have any plans to travel here in the next few weeks) after her research led her to conclude that old conceptions of Munch and his work reflected just a small part of the artist and the man.

The stereotype: Munch was the person screaming on that bridge, neurotic, maybe psychotic,  just a step or two away from wandering into psychological oblivion. And it’s not just The Scream that created that image; several other works from the same period have subjects with the same sunken-cheeked, slightly ghoulish look, and even when the people shown are not as eerie, the subjects can be: funeral scenes, the death of a child. But as Clark explained in a talk yesterday, Munch was much more than the painter of torment.

Ooh, spooky self-portrait

Ooh, spooky self-portrait

Let’s not overlook that he did have his demons – Munch battled alcoholism and anxiety and spend time in sanatoriums seeking to restore his equilibrium. But he was also a calculating businessman and sharp self-promoter as well as a tormented artist. Clark says that he wrote his diary with an eye toward its future publication, so perhaps some of the anxiety he put into words was meant to bolster his bedeviled image. Listening to her describe the other sides of the man, I thought of a Warhol or Koons,  artists who knew they were always creating an image of themselves, another piece of art they could market, as well as physical representations of their artistic philosophies.

Perhaps not your typical portrait of the Madonna...

Perhaps not your typical portrait of the Madonna...

Not to suggest that Munch was a fraud. He felt inner turmoil and saw the pain of life, and he reflected it in his creations. He also at times railed against the stifling bourgeois attitudes he saw around him (though he was no bohemian). But he also painted images that he knew would sell. Scenes of dying children and funerals were popular in Norway at the time, so Munch gladly got on the bandwagon. And if the French wanted red-haired femme fatales, he could whip out a few of those too.

Hearing Clark’s talk before going to the exhibit was informative, though in some ways I would rather have seen some of the important images up close first. The exhibit also features  examples of his printmaking with lithographs and woodcuts, which I liked. And the show includes the work of other painters that Munch decidedly knew about, or could have seen, before he did his own work. Clark mentioned Monet and several German and Scandinavian artists as influences. Not always wanting to reveal that influence, Munch was known to change the dates on some of his works to make it look like they came before another artist’s work. Sleazy, maybe, but another sign the guy was no nut.

One connection between the talk and the exhibit I made on my own (hey, I’m no art scholar, but I know some history): Clark described how a critic of the 1890s referred to The Scream as “degenerate art.” Degenerate was a common phrase of the time among some Nordic folks describing attitudes and people from the chaos-and-anxiety filled modern cities, those dens of evil that contrasted with the simple, rural ways of Norway’s (and Germany’s) past. I mentioned to Samantha that the critic sounded like a proto-Nazi, since they were so keen about rooting art “degenerate art.” Then, in the exhibit, a timeline showed a picture of the Nazis seizing some of Munch’s work because, of course, it was degenerate. And the battle over “degenerate art” does not end yet, eh? Our own culture wars have seen to that, though I doubt it will be much of an issue for the next few years, since we have a president who actually seems to respect art and the creative impulse.

I’m glad I had a chance to learn about Munch’s influences and business acumen. But I don’t think The Scream will ever lose its shorthand status for defining Munch. The exhibit, though, does try to end on a more uplifting note, with a painting of the sun that explodes with color and light. Samantha liked it. I thought it was OK – but I guess at heart I’m a Scream kind of guy.

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~ by mburgan on March 14, 2009.

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