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Love, Lust and Angst

Josh Taylor explores Munch's relationship with sensuality.

With ruthless contempt for form, clarity, elegance, wholeness, and realism, he paints with intuitive strength of talent the most subtle visions of the soul.” So Arne Eggum described Munch in 1984, and so do we have a description that still rings true some 35 years on for the expressionist master of angst. Perhaps the only thing missing from the list of Munch’s artistic disregard is that of sensual discretion: in his ‘soulscapes’, Munch explores an almost perverse fascination with sexuality and femininity. They are the focal points of much of his print works that provide a thematic foundation to his works almost on a part with his introspective talent. The British Museum exhibition exploring Munch’s sensual prints, entitled Love and Angst, may just have easily been titled Lust and Angst, a name perhaps better suited to describing frames filled with recurring phallic symbols and sperm cell borders. Inspired by the Bohemian-cum-anarchist Hans Jaeger, Munch (a good name for intellectual grand-standing, as it’s not pronounced how it’s spelt) came to treat art as an “attempt to explain life and its meaning to [him]self” .Much of the angst seen in his works is rooted in the difficult social transformation from Jaeger-esque Bohemianism to an industrialised, modern world. This same time period saw the hyper-sexual strands of Freudian thought emerge with great publicity, and it is likely that Freudian psycho-analysis branched into Munch’s own self-perception, resulting in the evocatively sensual style Munch has become recognisable for.

The exhibition wastes no time in establishing the influences of these two men: walking in you immediately find Munch’s infamously introspective self-portrait. Bland, indistinct features are overwhelmed by a sea of black, that deep black which is only possible on a lithograph. The eerie glare of such a normal face floating without a neck as if drowning, trying to keep his head above water, implies that the real monster, unspoken and unseen, lies within: it is the black of the deeper soul which provides the angst, not the outward appearance of man. Turning immediately round a corner, you encounter an enigmatic portrait of Hans Jaeger; the description next to it sufficiently Bohemian and complimentary of his influences on Munch. An elusively intriguing portrait, it is difficult to pin the man down as you find yourself drawn in, but rather unsure where to look. And so the scene is set: here we have a man of great artistic potential, with introspective expressionism that, only after the gentle nudging of an anarchist and in the emerging growth of psychology, truly came to life in its jealous, sensual, guilty, layered forms. Following a quasi-chronological development of Munch’s career the exhibition hits all the expected notes. The Frieze of Life, a lithograph print of The Scream, and The Sick Child, all rightly feature in this exhibition (and likely on many an Instagram story), and serve as good signposts for Munch’s progression as an artist.

To find the real intrigue and power of Munch though, one must look deeper into his ability to develop themes and prints, adding subtleties of colour and complexity that one can only appreciate fully when seeing versions side by side. These rows of prints, developed from one frame to the next, are where Munch really comes to life. Take Towards the Forest: three variations of one print, depicting an embracing couple standing at the edge of the forest, looking inwards. With each print, the forest gains detail; by the third variation, the forest is marked with twigs, tangled brush, and large tree branches, compared to mere outlines of shapes in the first print. The couple, in the same position but now different surroundings, take on a new character: sorrowful, overwhelmed, and contemplating something far more pessimistic than before. They become much more dependent on each other, the physical contact of their embrace now supportive, not solely loving. Munch adds a visceral tone to each print: he is not merely painting over a canvas, but carving notches and nooks into a physical manifestation of the soulscape he is trying to create. If visceral sensuality is only implied in Towards the Forest, it is the foundation stone for his exploration of women, habitually associating them with the femme fatale. Munch’s early experiences with women were dominated by tragedy: his mother and favourite sister died of consumption during his childhood, his younger sister developed schizophrenia (which Munch feared he had inherited too), and he never married. It is little wonder that these experiences led to a melancholic frustration with femininity, combined with a perceived fragility, to culminate in a repressed obsession with female sensuality. Vampire, Puberty, The Madonna, and The Kiss all revolve around the female nude. Displayed alongside each other in a row of women who resemble pre-Raphaelite muses (think Kate Bush in Wuthering Heights), each contains such deep-rooted sensual frustration that it is difficult to know where to begin. The nudity itself, especially of a young girl in Puberty; the disgruntled foetus floating in the corner of The Madonna; the voyeurism of nude kissing in front of a window in The Kiss; the billowing strands of red hair entangling an embracer in Vampire: the sensual elements are endless. There are even sperm cell borders on several works and recurring phallic symbols disguised as the sun’s reflection on a body of water. Confused frustration and hyper-sensuality penetrate each work, yet underlying them all is a feminine fragility Munch experienced all too well. Puberty shows a girl, staring directly at the viewer, frightened by her being observed, a young girl lost in a vast world. Vampire is an embrace, a woman resting on top of a man, a symbiotic dependency verging on parasitism. The Madonna has a perverse sense of peace, her eyes close to shut, looking slightly fatigued, resting calmly. The woman in The Kiss looks too weak to stand: without her partner holding her she may well fall through the window behind. Munch’s capacity for inner-exploration through development of prints and themes is why, in spite of his work’s continued capacity to make the viewer uncomfortable, his artistic appeal has endured. His angst at the emerging modern world and sensual frustration at women he could never seem to understand combine to create an impactful exhibition at the British Museum, where his art is allowed to flourish in its own brilliance, without forgetting the importance of the influences he received.

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