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“My art has been an act of confession.” So opens the preface to Gary Garrels, Jon-Ove Steihaug, and Sheena Wagstaff’s exhibition catalogue for Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, which took place in San Francisco, New York, and Oslo from June 2017 to September 2018. Edvard Munch (1863–1944) made this comment toward the end of his life, which is significant since the paintings he produced in his later years formed the focus of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, the latter of which is the subject of this review. It may come as no surprise that Munch’s titular self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43), served as the departure point for the exhibition, which sought to revisit Munch’s old age as a time of insight, creativity, and self-scrutiny. Each of the pioneering essays in the catalogue explores the intriguing and often surprising ways in which Munch’s later works take earlier motifs from his career and rework them into fresh representations of the themes that haunted his life and art: love, jealousy, pain, anxiety, social isolation, and mortality.
Painting may have been an act of confession for Munch, but significantly, as this catalogue points out, it was also a staged self-narration. In the early twentieth century Munch designed stage sets for the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in Berlin, and this interest in theatricality later found its way into the bedroom, which became a space for Munch to fashion his own image. The integrity of Munch’s painting—from the physical setting to the emotion bared within it—is captured in the preface by the renowned Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, who describes how “in these pictures he stands naked, with his guard down, even in his landscape paintings. There is nothing between him and the world, and it is this unguarded encounter that we see, not just once in one picture, but again and again, in hundreds of paintings” (14). It is entirely fitting that Knausgaard should write the preface to the catalogue, since the highly confessional nature of his own autobiographic writing propelled him to international fame with the publication of his controversially titled series Min kamp (My Struggle) between 2009 and 2011. Knausgaard’s affinity with the sensorial richness of Munch’s visual language is expressed through his assertion that these paintings “touch us in a way that words never can, they reach places in us where words have no access” (11).
Munch painted an absence of words in his depictions of silhouettes silently watching through windows at the end of the nineteenth century, but it is refreshing to see the catalogue foreground the importance of touch to Munch’s practice at this time. As the editors’ critical introduction points out, the artist was a master experimenter with the physical qualities of his painting materials—scraping, scratching, and dissolving his canvas in acts that were as destructive as they were creative. In this sense he was radically modern, and an important precursor for contemporary artists like Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), who similarly manipulates his paintings and leaves them outside at the mercy of nature. Although the catalogue refers in several places to Munch’s considerable influence on high-profile contemporary artists (among them Per Kirkeby, Georg Baselitz, and Jasper Johns), Kiefer is not mentioned alongside them. This is slightly surprising, since the German artist has acknowledged the influence of Munch, and additionally has acted as a mentor for Knausgaard. Neither Kiefer nor Knausgaard is afraid of skirting controversy, particularly with reference to their works’ engagement with fascism.
Indeed, as far as Munch was concerned, controversy was to be embraced; this is the subject of Patricia G. Berman’s valuable contribution to the catalogue, titled “The Business of the Being Edvard Munch.” The succès de scandale of Munch’s exhibition with the Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 is well-known. Berman, however, sheds light on Munch’s careful collection of newspaper clippings relating to his career—both the good and the bad—from the turn of the century onward, which she uses to support her underlying argument that the artist was not a naive social outsider and bohemian but rather a commercially minded, rational individual with a flair for publicity and a keen self-awareness.
In many ways, then, he could be likened to his German contemporaries Emil Nolde (1867–1956) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938), who both attentively staged their own receptions through autobiographical writing and noms de plume. However, where this catalogue treads new ground is not by situating Munch in relation to others (Munch and Expressionism was the subject of an exhibition at the Neue Galerie, New York, in 2016) but by reinterpreting his own life story and troubling the prevailing narrative that it was following his nervous breakdown in Copenhagen in 1908–9 and subsequent relocation to rural Ekely that his painting declined as he recovered his health. Instead, each essay considers the intensity of emotion and innovative approach to be found in Munch’s later works, and uses them to reframe the better-known works of the artist’s earlier career.
Allison Morehead’s essay, “The Untimely Face of Munch,” focuses on Munch’s self-portraiture, considering the concept of anachronism as accounting for the varied nature of this vast body of work. She refers to the historical precedent of Dürer’s and Rembrandt’s self-portraiture to explore how Munch’s depictions of himself are temporally complex and inconsistent: an experiment with himself, even? By reflecting on how these portraits are “defaced” by both creation and destruction, she sets the scene effectively for the subsequent essay by Mille Stein, which considers how Munch’s painting technique and his alterations to the painterly surface of his canvases enabled him to produce provocative depictions that heightened the intensity of his portrayals of emotional subjects.
“Struggle” is an important conceptual theme that appears throughout the catalogue, but Stein’s essay deftly unpacks the technical details of how Munch’s visible struggles with the canvas contributed to the troubled nature of paintings such as The Sick Child (1885–86), a theme he returned to on multiple occasions. Sickness indelibly defined Munch’s childhood (“I came into the world as a sick being—in sick surroundings. My youth was spent in a sickbed, and life was a brightly lit window,” 65), but it is worth noting that contemplating the world outdoors from the confines of a sickbed was an experience that many artists suffered at various stages of their career. For instance, Munch’s statement calls to mind the aforementioned Kirchner, who documented the brilliantly moonlit nights of the Swiss Alps from his sickbed in a mountainside hut, where he had retreated following the trauma of the First World War.
The significance of the bedroom and in particular the sickbed in Western cultural history was recently surveyed by the French historian Michelle Perrot in her study The Bedroom: An Intimate History (trans. Lauren Elkin, Yale University Press, 2018). In this work, in which she draws on literature, the visual arts, and cultural and medical history, Perrot suggests that there is a physiognomy of the interior as well as the face. It is compelling, then, that Munch should represent a grandfather clock within his last major self-portrait, since the idea of the artist outside or ahead of his own time chimes with the faceless clock that stands like an old custodian next to the elderly artist. It is precisely this “outsiderness” that is the subject of Richard Shiff’s essay, titled “Munch on the Periphery.” In seeking to understand the essence of Munch’s painting, Shiff reflects on the perpetual movement between outside and inside that characterizes Munch’s extensive career, concluding that he was a peripheral figure even within an avant-garde periphery.
Throughout Munch’s oeuvre, tantalizing images of moonlit windows and half-open doors quietly usher in the theme of liminality and thresholds to be crossed, and many of these domestic interiors find their place in the catalogue. The physiognomy of the unheimlich, or uncanny, interior was the focus of an exhibition titled Edvard Munch und das Unheimliche at the Leopold Museum in Vienna (2009–10), which drew in part on ideas explored by Anthony Vidler surrounding the concept of an architectural uncanny. Between the Clock and the Bed, however, is concerned less with the uncanny and more with the emotional intensity the spaces and objects around us acquire in our old age. It is the intensity of Munch’s emotional encounters, which continued into his last years, that is laid bare by Knausgaard in his opening reflections: “We cannot live with the strongest emotions, because sorrow and being in love become unbearable in the end, we have to wear them down in order to carry on living. What is so special about Edvard Munch is that he never managed to wear down these emotions” (15).
In treating Munch’s late oeuvre and finding the impulses of his youth there, Garrels, Steihaug and Wagstaff have created a beguiling and beautifully presented undressing of an artist who quite clearly does not yet deserve to be put to bed.
PhD Candidate, History of Art Department, University of Edinburgh
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