Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye // Tate Modern

Tate Modern. 28 June – 14 October 2012

Not content with offering a straight retrospective of the 19th century Norwegian, symbolist painter, the Tate Modern has opened Edvard Munch: The Modern eye. It’s aim seems to seek awareness of Munch as modernist innovator of the 20th century. Munch, an inherently indefinable character, instills a desire to delve deeper into his fragmented inner world, which marks every painting, film, and photograph he created, so I was keen to explore.

The Dance of Life 1900, Self-Portrait, 53 Am Strom, Warnemünde, 1907.

To truly understand Munch’s work we must try to understand the man. And this is no simple feat. Munch’s life was marked in tragedy from a young age, born in Oslo in 1863, he lost his sister and mother as a child, both from tuberculosis. The tragedy urged his father to become deeply religious, instilling a lifelong fear of damnation within Munch. In his twenties he came part of a bohemian circle including writer, philosopher and political activist Hans Jaeger. However Munch, seemed perpetually lodged in a feeling of inescapable isolation and finally succumbed to a nervous breakdown and reclusion from the outside world.

“ the bohemian era came with it free love-god-and everything was overthrown everything raging wild, deranged dance of life…but I could not be set free.”

The exhibition is deeply informative in unpicking how these biographies have played out within the work.  And there is a clear connection between the illustration of Munch’s inner world with the hollow figures, faceless, piercing mad eyes and blurring forms which permeate through the earlier paintings of his. A recurring motif of palpably absent female figures, sucking away his lifeblood, is prevalent in images such as Ashes 1894 and The Kiss 1897. He depicts women as dominant figures undertaking a myriad of metaphors. Unlike fellow 20th century painters exploring woman as muse, particularly Picasso who painted his women exuding sex to garish proportions, Munch’s women seem void of sexuality appearing as transitory hallucinations merging into mother, a lover, sister, a woman possessed. Munch wants to drag you into the layered complexity and wildness of his female subjects and not their physical form which, like most of his forms appear to melt into their mystical surroundings.  In Ashes 1894, the woman stands straight on, while the man at profile perspective cowers in the corner, willingly decaying in the presence of her wildness. The female is nature, wild and untamable and subject to transience, just as every close female figure in his life was. This desperation for connections within a sea of isolation is a permeable theme throughout.

Three Stages of Woman (The Sphinx) 1894, Ashes 1894, Two Human Beings (The Lonely Ones) 1899.

The link to more modernist persuasions becomes more apparent with the injection of repetitive small black and white self portrait photographs of profile and three quarter angle shots of the artist. A true investigation of the photographic medium takes hold in double exposures and images of him blurred with his paintings, where he appears to dissapear into the image he has created for himself.

The exhibition mark out these experiments with the photographic, and some of his paintings, as paralleling modern scientific breakthroughs of the time concerning invisible matter such as xrays, radioactivity and radio waves. His exploration of 20th century technological and cultural developments seem to coincide with his curiosity for the immaterial, phantasmagoric and obsession with capturing, “humanity as it strives towards the light, revelation, light in times of darkness.”  These images also reveal a man under constant self-examination, searching for a more spiritual truth.

The exhibition interestingly examines Munch’s use of foreground and background and how he drew heavily on the grammar and choreography of cinema to enhance a sense of motion, drama and action. A recurring motif of character set apart from the crowd with a background perspective of motion pervading their stillness, gives a sense of action which was extremely pioneering for the time. This is particularly shown in Workers on their way home 1913-1915, where hollow figures with piercing eyes blur into their surroundings and the distinctions between forms become obsolete.

Sun 1911, Workers Returning Home 1913-15.


Munch’s regression into deep isolation from the outside world is depicted poignantly at the end of the exhibition in a selection of painted self portraits. The madness appears to have taken hold in portraits charting his material decline. Night Wanderer, 1924, shows the artist as a gaunt figure pacing around a darkened house, surrounded by his paintings. ‘my art has been a personal confession, it has been like a radio telegraphist’s warning telegram from a sinking ship’.

Night Wanderer, 1924.


Words by Rachel Ridge, Editor in London


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