by Roderick Conway Morris

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Love and Angst

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 May 2019
Munchmuseet, Oslo
The Girls on the Bridge by Edvard Munch, 1918



Edvard Munch was nearly 30 before he was offered the chance of a one-man show in Berlin in 1892. He had by then done about 60 paintings but had sold hardly any. His bold, idiosyncratic Expressionist style shocked the local bourgeoisie, was ridiculed in the press, and the exhibition closed after a week. However, the show gained him instant notoriety and an entrÉe into local avant-garde circles.

At this time Munch began to make his first prints, a venerable tradition that went back to Dürer, Holbein and Rembrandt, and was now being rediscovered by such radical artists as Whistler. This revived medium clearly appealed to Munch because it allowed him to reach a wider public, but he also had an almost neurotic attachment to his paintings - 'his children' as he later referred to them - and he hated parting with them. By making his own prints he could keep a record of all his works.

However, almost immediately Munch found in prints an inspiring new means of expression. He astonished contemporaries by mastering all the techniques of printmaking, from etching and engraving to woodblock carving and lithography. A daring innovator, especially in colour prints, in which the natural grain of the wood is often deliberately left visible, he eventually established himself as probably the most original and important of all Modernist artists in the medium. As one of his patrons admiringly observed, 'from his earliest print, Munch spoke with the voice of a mature artist'.

During the next half century until his death in 1944, Munch produced some 850 different printed compositions, nearly a third of them between 1894 and 1904. In a revelatory exhibition, curated by Giulia Bartrum, over 80, along with striking examples of their original matrices, are now on display at the British Museum, most on loan from the incomparable collection of the artist's works at the Munch Museum in Oslo.

As an art student in Kristiania (reverting to its old name Oslo from 1925), Munch was part of a bohemian coterie that preached free love but seems frequently to have been a hotbed of angst and conflict, as recorded in such compelling works as 'Jealousy II' (1896) - the female figure depicted was indeed later murdered by a lover. Losing his mother and sister in childhood had a devastating effect on Munch, and while he sometimes seems to regard women with a horrified fascination, he can also display a deep empathy with them.

The range of Munch's prints greatly expanded over time. He did the defining portrait prints of both Ibsen and Strindberg. And his later, beautifully coloured woodblock prints, of figures in seaside and forest settings, radiate a mystical atmosphere of tranquillity.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst; British Museum, London; 11 April - 21 July 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024