Edvard Munch’s Uncanny Side

A newly opened exhibition of the Norwegian’s work places the artist in unfamiliar company

On The Town | Christopher Anderson | November 2009

Edvard Munch's lithograph, The Scream (Photo: The Munch Museum/The Munch Ellingsen Group/VBK)

No one walking into Oslo’s Munchmusset can forget the impression of seeing Edvard Munch’s signature tableau, The Scream, displayed as you first enter the museum. The famous contorted face of Angst and Weltschmerz on a bridge of oblivious passers-by is what you came to see.

The rest of the museum endeavors to show the man behind the scream.

In a similar vein, the current exhibit "Edvard Munch and the Uncanny" at the Leopold Museum aims to sweep you off your feet with a fine collection of Munch works, but then somehow fails to follow through, surrounding it with works of questionable relevance.

According to exhibition curator Michael Fuhr, most Munch exhibitions focus on his biography and see the painter as an individual exploring his own emotions and social context. Fuhr avers the opposite:

"He wasn’t just inspired by the death of his sister," he said, "but also by the art he saw in Paris and in Berlin." His sister Sophie’s passing in 1877 proved to be a major turning point in the artist’s career. Vital sojourns in Paris and Berlin in 1892 helped expose him to a more cosmopolitan avant-garde art scene.

Here however, the organizers have instead placed the over 35 works into a context of "The Uncanny", a literary and artistic genre that gradually developed in various forms over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries.

At first glance, the collection of over 200 works sets out in the traditional fashion of displaying oeuvres by the one artist. Descending the staircase of the Leopold into this world, the visitor is greeted with a varicolored array of emotional states. In Ashes, a shocked woman glares wide-eyed at the viewer, her hands plunged into her head of russet hair. Crouching in the wake of her grief, a man hangs his head into his arm, seemingly in shame.

On the opposite wall, the lithographic version of the iconic The Scream also hangs, casting a look of horror back across the room at the woman. One pupil of the phantomesque figure targets the viewer, while the other unnaturally twists to the side. His hands wrest the contorted lines of his face, and the oval rictus of his mouth melts down into his neck. Munch himself scribbled on the back of the original canvas, "can only have been painted by a madman."

Such expressions of torment, sorrow, loneliness, fear and death permeate the tableaux in the room, at times creeping into Munch’s pleasant imagery. The Vampire embodies the attachment and pain felt in his love-hate relationship with a certain Tulla Larsen, a painting in which an obscure woman buries her mouth into the nape of a man’s neck. Even the Madonna lithograph juxtaposes a sublime female figure and a blissful expression with spermatozoa and a grotesque sickly embryo.

If the exhibition sets out on an introspective and sometimes unsettling note, the subsequent rooms follow a serpentine path through the mysterious world of The Uncanny, a genre that admittedly is "difficult to define," according to Fuhr.

"Each person defines Das Unheimlich in his own way," he said. "It is not only that which is no longer secret (unheimlich), but also in the sense of unheimisch, where no one feels ‘at home’ anymore."

Just as Munch explored the uncomfortable environs of his soul, Belgian artist James Ensor employed "symbols of the subconscious" like theater masks and skulls to conceal or reveal the hidden, in works like Communion. A trio of etchings from Alfred Kubin, Eugène Laermans and Theodor Kittelsen depicts mysterious staircases bending into obscurity, never indicating what lies around the corner. Artists like Otto Modersohn and Kittelsen achieve the same effect through the crest of a hill barely blanketing a rising moon, or the surface of a pond blurring the identity of an emerging water sprite.

Other manifestations of Das Unheimlich find inspiration in dreams and nightmares. In a ca.1799 print of a dormant man enveloped by bats and owls, taken from Kubin’s collection, Francisco de Goya reminds us that "the sleep of reason produces monsters." Kubin’s own Sleep presents an eerie scene of seven recumbent bodies around a stone plinth or altar, supporting a crouched figure with abnormally high knees playing a pipe. Unearthly figures also occupy the imagination of Odilon Redon, the Symbolist painter of already great renown by the time of Munch’s visit to Paris.

Along with Carl Georg Adolf Hasenpflug’s Church Ruin in the Snow, Victor Hugo’s Ruins of a Renaissance Portico evokes the mysteries of former glory, causing the visitor to wonder if Romanticism really fits into le fantastique, as the French know it.

By the second half of the 19th century, hypnotism, mesmerism and "visions of the occult" provided fuel for further exploration into the unknown. Gabriel von Max and Albert von Keller participated in the Psychological Society of hypnotist Albert von Schrenk-Notzing, resulting in von Max’s scene from a séance. Also co-founder of Munich’s Secession, Von Keller based his Vision of the Crucifixion II on accounts of a trance experienced by nun Katharina Emmerich.

In literature, The Uncanny narrative starts and builds harmlessly, and then at some point swerves into the unfamiliar. Max Klinger reflects this literary device in the cycles A Love and A Glove. In the former, stereotypical scenes of a man courting a woman in a park suddenly shift to puzzling depictions of the couple as Adam and Eve in states of happiness, shame, awakening and death. In the latter cycle, a woman’s glove found by a man in a skating rink takes on a life of its own as it torments the obsessed mind of the artist trying to return it to her.

In the case of Italian Angelo Morbelli, his painting itself follows a similar narrative. Having caused uproar in the late 19th century with this work, the artist shaved the canvas into two, separating the parts into different collections and finally being reunited here. The left side depicts a finely set dinner table in a bourgeois home with empty champagne bottles, half-drunk glasses, and flowers strewn upon the floor. Thin fumes of smoke rising from half-burnt candles indicate the cordial dinner party has just finished.

In the right panel, however, the eye discovers a lifeless man in a suit on the floor, and a woman equally dead on a plush couch. Hence the title, Asphyxiation.

With such imagery in mind, the visitor returns to the Munch room and attempts to reconnect to the artist using the shared genre language of The Uncanny. The vampires, the intense fear, and looming reminder of death seem to relate to Munch’s exploration into the uncharted waters of the human soul. Munch’s world is indeed secret and we are unwilling companions on his trip into the "un-homely".

In retrospect, however, the bulk of the exhibition relates to a world that was not entirely Munch’s own. In fact, the artists represented seldom crossed paths enough even to form a cohesive coterie of painters who exchanged ideas. Nonetheless, the visitor can be assured of an absorbing, if perplexing journey through art history in the first stirrings of the modern era.

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