Love, anxiety, death; these words stated along the wall in The National Gallery appropriately express some of the recurring themes found in this Munch exhibition. Forty of the most powerful prints spanning the Norwegian artists career are exhibiting in the Beit Wing of the National Gallery from 19 September 2009 to 6 December 2009. With tickets priced at only €5, and with free entry all day on Mondays, this is well worth the visit.
Upon entering the exhibition, it is somewhat appropriate that the first print on display is the lithograph print of the Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski, 'Stanislaw Przybyszewski, 1895', as Przybyszewski's theories on the transmission of thoughts as vibrations influenced much of the work of Munch - this is most famously observed in Munchs work 'The Scream'. In fact, the first of four rooms in the exhibition predominately displays portraits of both friends and influential figures to the artist and this thus helps to provide us with a great introduction and insight into the mind of Munch. We are introduced to the artist himself in 'Self-Portrait, 1895' which is considered one of his greatest self-portrait prints. This lithograph shows Munch immersed in black with just his head appearing at the centre of the piece. It also includes his skeletal arm hence reminding us of death - with death proving to be a persistent theme throughout his work. We also encounter his interesting use of hair which is depicted by Munch throughout many of his prints, for example, we see this in the lithograph portrait of the dramatist August Strindberg in 'August Strindberg, 1896'. Here in this portrait the border mirrors Strindberg’s wiry hair, the border also includes a naked woman as if she lies central to his thoughts. Munch frequently depicts females with long hair and we see this in the print 'The Sin (Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes), 1902' which shows the woman as a mysterious red-haired temptress with piercing green eyes. This image of long hair can also be seen throughout the show in prints such as 'Separation II, 1896', 'Jealousy I, 1896', 'Attraction I, 1896' and 'Vampire II, 1895' where the power of women over him is represented by the binding and entwining of their hair around their lovers. Other notable and influential people featured in the portraits include the dramatist Henrik Ibsen and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
Advancing forward through the gallery we are then introduced to some of the artists woodcut prints together with more of his lithographic drawings. Here we discover Munch’s most famous of prints, 'The Scream, 1895'. This work of Munchs tends to evoke an instantaneous reaction and a somewhat eerie responsiveness upon its audience. It’s an image of anxiety and its genderless figure allows both male and female to relate to the person. Although the figure appears to be screaming, from previous statements by Munch (as to the origin of the painting) it is believed that the figure is not actually screaming but is covering their ears to the enormous, infinite scream of the nature surrounding them as the livid landscape appears to vibrate around them. There are many different versions of this work, all of which are strongly recognisable - their familiarity assisted by the fact that two versions of this work were previously stolen but thankfully both were recovered in 2006. Another famous print of Munch’s, which was once considered obscene, is the mesmerising 'Madonna, 1895/1902' lithograph (a version of this was also previously stolen) which was central to the love section of Munch’s 1895 Berlin exhibition. In this print we are confronted with the ecstatic sexuality of the woman and the link between the darkness of death and the spermatozoid-like images representing the generations yet to come. Munchs' use of the border, as seen earlier in the exhibition in 'August Strindberg, 1896', is again utilized here whereby the sperm and foetus appear in the border of the drypoint 'Death and the Woman, 1894'. This print represents the recurring themes of love and death. We also see the first version of 'Madonna, 1894' in this exhibition. Both versions of this print display the use of wavy lines demonstrating the vibrations of thoughts. This use of rhythmic lines is again exhibited in the lithograph 'On the Waves of Love, 1896' where the waves of the ocean act as the gliding vibrations of thoughts. Indeed the sea is used in many of Munch’s prints and the harsh shore of the ocean in Asgardstrand, where Munch once lived, appears in 'Attraction I, 1896', 'Evening. Melancholy I, 1896', 'Melancholy II, 1898' and 'Melancholy III, 1902' where the subject is dealing with love and the melancholy of a lost or rejected lover (the inspiration of which was derived from Munchs own personal experiences of love).
‘Woman II (The Woman in Three Stages), 1895' is one of the few drypoint, etching and open bite prints in the exhibition. It is also set by the shore and here Munch portrays women in three different stages. First we see the innocent girl staring across the sea, we then see her confronting us as a sexual being and lastly we observe her as a disappointed widow turning away from the ocean. We see this third stage repeated in 'Woman’s Head against the Shore, 1899' where the widow is seen turning away from the ocean with dark heavy eyes. Throughout Munch's work we see him presenting woman in many different ways, such as, innocent beings, despondent jealous beings and as sexual beings.
Themes such as misery and death are plentiful throughout many of Munchs' prints and these themes are portrayed in much of the work that is on display in this exhibition. The emotional trauma of the tragedy in the loss of Munch's sister Sophie to tuberculosis when he was a teenager can be seen in both 'Death in the Sickroom, 1896' and 'The Sick Child I, 1896'. 'The Sick Child I' is Munch’s only true colour lithograph and it is a remarkable piece focusing on the girls head as she gazes across the room with a look of helplessness as she approaches death. Born in 1863, Munch also lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was a mere child and he was often poorly himself. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908.
The final print that we observe in this exhibition brings us back to the artist himself in another self-portrait. In contrast to the previous self-portrait, where he portrays himself in a powerful manner, in 'Self-portrait with Bottle of Wine, 1930' we see Munch as a despondent man sitting on his own with a bottle of wine. It was painted a short time before he was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen for his nervous breakdown and around the time of the end of his most creative phase. It is quite sad to have walked through this exhibition observing such great works of art and to then find such a lonesome, despairing print of the artist himself, however, it perfectly summarises the tormented themes, disturbing feelings and everyday human dilemmas displayed in some of his greatest and fascinating pieces.