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'Edvard Munch: Love and Angst' Review – The British Museum

11th April – 21st July 2019

Standard Ticket - £17 (£14 on Mondays)

Student Ticket - £14 (with 2 for 1 tickets for students on Fridays)

Under 16s go free


The idea of creating from negative space is a rife image, both literally and metaphorically, in contemplation of Munch’s work. The carving out of wood and metal, the process of applying directed but delicate pressure to material and its subsequent being dislocated, isolated from a whole, speaks to something of Munch’s life experience.

Munch was preoccupied with the childhood trauma of the deaths of both his sister and mother as a child, as well as persistent mental health issues and alcoholism. These filter into his work, an outlet for his agony. The Norwegian artist was born in 1863 near modern-day Oslo and was heavily influenced by radical movements that were inflicting change in the arts in Europe, particularly in Berlin and Paris. We are given generous insight in his life and how his experiences of turbulent love affairs and trauma affected his work and how these shaped his portrayal of the inner lives of individuals living in an anxious and agitated world.

Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895/1902. On loan from Munch Museum, Oslo. Image courtesy of The British Museum

From its opening print of a self-portrait, this exhibition sees an unfaltering standard of work that continues throughout the entire collection. Munch’s plain, haunted face seems to welcome you into the space, while the skeleton arm underneath indicates the haunted nature of his work. It is a fantastic opening piece, as throughout we see sensitive depictions of his preoccupations: the danger of the female, love, the erotic and the agony of life.

Additionally, for those wanting to learn more about the techniques of print-making, this collection is incredibly instructional. The processes of copperplating etching, drypoint, woodcut and lithography are explained in detail, their descriptions, and often their complexity, are all testaments to Munch’s dedication and to the degree of his technical skill.

Edvard Munch, Two Human Beings. The Lonely Ones, 1899.On loan from Munch Museum, Oslo. Image courtesy of The British Museum

The two variations on The Kiss, from 1895 and 1902, prove the perfect example of this. The first, an etching, depicts two nude bodies curled together in a tender embrace – you cannot help but be thrown by what Munch chooses to focus on. The details of a hand are reduced to a lily-pad like form while the shadows on skin are represented with painstaking exactitude: sharp black lines drift into a soft grey fog that accentuate the contours of the human body. The second variation, a woodcut, approaches the same image very differently. Stood in the same embrace these two individuals are almost indistinguishable from one another as their faces and bodies are merged into one form. Only three curved lines give the sense of their arms holding each other.

The exhibition itself is well sized – concise yet rich. Contextual work and information is relevant and pointed, and it has clearly been compassionately curated by Giulia Bartrum; every moment is enjoyable. To be hyper-critical the exhibition’s layout is perhaps slightly disorientating but this is a minor fault only, and it perhaps gives a sense of freedom.

Edvard Munch,The Scream 1895. On loan from a private collection, Norway. Image courtesy of The British Museum

Another highlight is a print of his infamous painting, The Scream (above); its rendering into black and white gives a fresh perspective on the work. Having been stripped back into a lithograph, the print gives a sharper sense of grief, the shock of the screaming individual’s face is pointed as everything winds to the exasperated o of his mouth.This depiction of despair touches on a deeper, unspeakable anguish, of Munch’s understanding of a scream that has 'pass[ed] through nature'.

Print after print, with the occasional painting, Munch’s work is impeccable. A visit to the British Museum could not be more heartily recommended. It is sheer but worth it. As the largest exhibition of his prints in the UK for forty-five years, it is an unusual opportunity to intimately experience one of the pioneering artists of the twentieth century. An exercise in empathy, in the portrayal of pain and how we respond to it, it is a dark, intense and thought-provoking collection.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor

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