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It’s hard to view the work in The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photography, an exhibition currently on view at Scandinavia House, in any sort of impartial way, to evaluate it separately from Edvard Munch’s more famous work. The photographs and film shown here are largely of interest because they were created by Munch, whose seminal 1893 painting “The Scream” is a prescient, enigmatic example of existential alienation, a theme much explored in 20th-century art.
New York is having a Munch moment. Happening concurrently to the Scandinavia House exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum’s Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed frames Munch’s career using his late work, particularly the painting “Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940–43), completed a year before he died. Many of the images in The Experimental Self are also self-portraits, although they exhibit an unfinished playfulness with technical manipulation and subject matter that is not as readily seen in Munch’s more well-known work. The artist often created photographic images of himself in multiples; for example, “Self-Portrait in a Hat in Profile Facing Right” (1930) is part of a group of similar works, each taken from a different angle.
In addition to a fascination with seriality, Munch’s photos demonstrate an interest in the spooky possibilities of photography — the use of technical manipulation to obscure rather than to capture verisimilitude. “Edvard Munch and Rosa Meissner in Warnemünde” (1907), one of a series, shows its subjects overexposed, concealing detail. In addition, the image is doubled, so that the ghosts of its subjects appear to be standing directly behind them.
The work in Experimental Self is most interesting when a photographic subject interacts more personally and directly with the camera. “Self-Portrait ‘à la Marat,’ Beside a Bathtub at Dr. Jacobson’s Clinic” (1908-09) is not only a tongue-in-cheek nod to Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting “The Death of Marat,” but is also a slightly grotesque half-nude of the artist staring into the camera, an allusion to physical violence that feels like a genuine moment of emotional insecurity.
Not all of the images are probing or morose. The exhibition wall text interestingly brings up “the selfie,” and some of Munch’s works indeed have a vain and playful feeling that feels startlingly contemporary. In “Edvard Munch Posing Nude in Åsgårdstrand” (1903), the artist stands nude, sword in hand and hand on hip, a humorous spoof of European portraiture — here the royal subject has no clothes. In general, Munch seems more aware of the power of the camera to create a “self” than one might imagine an individual born in the mid-19th century to be. Every generation feels itself to be more self-aware than preceding generations of the transformative use of technology. It is refreshingly humbling to confront images that cause one to question that assumption.
Experimental Self certainly does not prove Munch to be a photographic or cinematic genius. (A short home movie, taken on a Pathé-Baby camera, seems a pretty standard piece of home amateur filmmaking; it explores how the film camera captures movement and perspective.) However, Experimental Self certainly humanizes Munch. It shows the artist both as a playful human being, and also demonstrates his work in a medium in which he was less facile. These works are not finished products — it should be mentioned that they were not exhibited during his lifetime — and as such pull back the curtain on a messier part of this artist’s creative process, a valuable exhibition end in and of itself.
The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photography continues at Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave, Midtown East, Manhattan) through March 5.