by Robert J. Hughes
Few images are as known, or as appropriated, as Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. Luckily, in the exhibition devoted to him at Centre Pompidou in Paris, The Scream is not on display.
This exhibition of some eighty works never before seen in France presents Munch as an observer of nature and someone who tries to distill emotion onto canvas. It also features his photography and even some of his films (he was fascinated by cinema).
Although The Scream isn't here, several works that tickle the tremors of fear and unease show up in various versions, such as The Sick Child, The Kiss and The Vampire. Touching: the child who lies ill. Disturbing: a kiss where the two people (one hesitates to use the word lovers) seem to be devouring each other or folding themselves into each other like a rapacious blob. Downright Frightful: the vampire paintings, all similar to one another, which show a man being ravaged by a female bloodsucker.
But that was when Munch had developed his own style, one that combines the flowing, loaded brush of Van Gogh with the lurid colors of a Fauvist. One sees hints of Van Gogh, even Manet, in some of his landscapes. They have a beauty that shows a side of Munch he would abandon: the naturalist after the heightened natural. But everywhere one sees him trying to shock with color: the carnal, savage red of a woman's bloody lips, the gray affronted eyes of a person who's seen an abandoned corpse (Murder on the Road).
These graphic images, so indelible – there's a poster-like immediacy to his paintings – are different from the photography with which he experimented. The exhibition features a roomful of his small black-and-white self-portraits, where he seems alternately ghostlike (as if emerging from a daguerreotype) or still (as if he were posing for a camera with a very slow shutter speed). The photos have none of the vibrancy of his paintings. But they show his interest in the threatening everyday. In his paintings though, what he did with the familiar was to make it feral.
His self-portraits are much more charged, more revealing of someone tormented by horrors, by alcoholism, by mental uncertainty. The photos show a quizzical gaze, someone looking back at the camera as an equal. The paintings show someone fearful of knowing too much of what the recesses of his mind might hold, and then going there to discover what lay there anyway.
Painting, drawing, allowed him to see beyond the surface. In his photography, which is really nothing special (and his exercises in filmmaking are really only of interest, much like one's grandparents' home movies, for showing what a street scene looked like in the 1920s). There's none of the emotion – the raw feeling – in his photos that one finds in his painting. Even a photo of him staged like Marat in his tub at the moment of the French revolutionary's death lacks drama – Munch's blandly handsome Norwegian face already looked as if it were frozen in rigor mortis. His painting of the death of Marat is much more unsettling.
Munch had a definite theatrical flair, and he designed several stage productions, including one for Ibsen's Ghosts. Those designs are shown here in this show. In his paintings, though, such as The Sick Child, there's a stillness set with anguish, and a reversal of roles – it's the ill child who seems to be comforting the grieving parent or nurse. We are witnesses in Munch's paintings to the dissolution of boundaries between people, and not for the good; this isn't a sign of transparency, but of rawness: people who can't keep their terrors at bay and unleash them on unsuspecting others.
- Robert J. Hughes, a writer living in Paris