Edvard Munch (1863-1944), “Vampire II” (1896). The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo (all images courtesy of the British Museum unless otherwise noted)

LONDON — Retrospectives of long-dead artists are not merely an opportunity to examine how their philosophies and aesthetics match up to the modern day. They are often explicitly sold on the notion of enduring relevance. Such is the case for the British Museum’s Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, which promises visitors a deeper look at an artist many likely know solely for “The Scream.” “Munch’s idiosyncratic expression of raw human emotion reflects many of the anxieties and hotly debated issues of his times,” the opening gallery text reads, “yet his art resonates powerfully to this day.” With the title and the opening words, the exhibition establishes its focus on Munch’s passions and pains. But what remains unspoken — and addressed with far less critical capacity than one might expect of a 21st-century show at a major institution — is the ways these dark emotions frequently came to target the women in his life.

Munch flirted with political radicalism in his youth: he knew (and drew) a number of the members of the Oslo (then Kristiania) Bohemians, a group of anti-establishment artists whose tongue-in-cheek “commandments” include “thou shalt never smite thy neighbor for less than five crowns” and “thou shalt never wear celluloid cuffs.” Among the group’s best-known positions was their belief in free love, which shocked many at the time.

While the exhibition foregrounds this affiliation, it is hazier about Munch’s personal politics. Although he certainly socialized with notable anti-establishment figures — including the group’s leader, Hans Jæger, whose writings would land him in prison on charges of blasphemy and infringement of public morality — Munch’s shy disposition combined with his religious convictions prevented him from truly committing to the Bohemians’ values; he even wrote a play (never published) called The City of Free Love satirizing both the group’s philosophy and many of the individuals who upheld it. Munch himself averred the importance of the Bohemians for his aesthetic development: they encouraged his turn away from realism in favor of expressionism and raw emotionality. Yet as Love and Angst seems to oversell his overt political commitments it fails to directly explore the areas where the limits of his supposed radicalism lay exposed.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) “Jealousy II” (1896) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

These limits are starkest when it comes to the gender politics of his œuvre. The artist paints his female family members with tenderness (for instance, 1907’s “The Sick Child,” which depicts the death of Munch’s beloved elder sister at the age of 15). In contrast, his depictions of women outside of his family tend to fixate on themes of sexual allure and fertility; in the words of scholar Kristie Jayne in her article “The Cultural Roots of Edvard Munch’s Images of Women,” “Munch’s women are disclosed as helpless pawns of biological and sexual forces and processes buried below the level of consciousness.”

Edvard Munch on the trunk in his studio (1902), Munchmuseet, Oslo

The artist’s frank treatment of sexuality — such as long-tailed sperm that swim around the exposed central figure of his Madonna series — would have shocked contemporary critics, but when viewed collectively, they reveal a rather narrow focus on sex and fecundity. The well-known series The Frieze of Life exemplifies Munch’s penchant for allegorical depictions in an attempt to distill universal human truths. This approach shaves the narrative contours of women’s lives down to the perfunctory waystations of love, childbirth, and the disappointments of infertility and old age. The same attitude is embodied in “Woman in Three Stages,” a print from the series that depicts its protagonist’s transition from white-clad naif to nude seductress to grim-faced old woman in widow’s weeds. Another print from The Frieze of Life, “The Voice” (1894), seems at first simply to depict a young woman in the forest until one notices the phallic symbolism in the background, implying that women’s existence is defined largely by their sexual allure to men.

Edvard Munch, “Jealousy” (1907), Munchmuseet, Oslo (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

In other exhibited works, what comes through clearly is an aura of almost vengeful brooding, an attitude that may have roots in Munch’s own tumultuous romantic relationships. “That is woman!” he wrote in one of his private journals. “A lady has permission to intrigue — bagatelle — seduce a man — ruin a man with lies and decoys … to destroy a man.” Seductresses in Munch’s prints and paintings seem to strangle their male paramours in their tangled locks (“Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair,” 1896) or drink their lovers’ blood, their luminous skin glowing eerily in the moonlight (“Vampire II,” 1895/1902). Nor is this limited to fictional and allegorical depictions. 1905’s “Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen” (whose alternative title, “Caricature of Tulla Larsen,” is not used in the show) depicts Munch alongside his one-time fiancée; their relationship ended after a serious row in which Munch shot himself in the hand. Larsen is depicted as dour and long faced, the sickly color of her skin played up by the emerald-green background and her serpentine red curls, which echo Munch’s images of vampiresses. Munch himself, by contrast, appears hale and hearty. A slash between the two sides was created when Munch sawed the painting in half following the relationship’s dramatic implosion.

The gallery labels allude to violent instantiations of misogyny — one print, “Jealousy II” (1896), depicts the Bohemian Stanisław Przybyszewski as his wife, Dagny Juel, stands naked beneath a tree with another man, evoking both Eve and serpent. The label notes that Juel was later murdered by a lover. Contributions to the show by other artists, included in an attempt to furnish context, reveal a similar distrust of women. A French piece by Eugène Samuel Grasset featuring a so-called “acid thrower” from the Paris Commune, her eerie green skin contrasting with her flaming hair, illustrates the degree to which women’s autonomy was feared and reviled as an anarchic force of evil.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), “Madonna” (1895/1902), Munchmuseet, Oslo

Every biographical show runs the risk of sliding into hagiography. But the equation of aesthetic avant-gardism with social vanguardism is an all-too-common fallacy, one that Love and Angst slips into. Certainly, the greatest of Munch’s works have a raw emotional pulse. But while Love and Angst bills itself as a dive into Munch’s psyche, it fails to reckon with an important shortcoming of the artist’s legacy.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, UK) through July 21.

Erica X Eisen's works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Hazlitt, The New Inquiry, The Paris Review Daily, The London Review of Books Blog, The Baffler, Slate, The Threepenny Review, Stinging...

9 replies on “The Limits of Edvard Munch’s Radicalism”

  1. Very interesting review and some excellent points made. Made me look at his work with different eyes.

  2. I don’t understand this expectation that every artist needs to be an empathetic, compassionate and well-rounded human being. Most artists have some serious issues. Actually, most people do, but it’s hard to remember that when you’re sitting in an Williamsburg-type office, sipping on a seven-dollar cup of iced coffee and using your little soap box to spread some typically American self-righteousness.

  3. I would like you to show me an example of an artist with a perfect legacy. Maybe, just for fun, you should walk around NYC with a paint bucket and throw paint on the museum walls in order to acknowledge the “imperfect legacy” of nearly every famous artist. Actually, if you get tired of doing that you should just walk around the street and throw paint at random people because I’m sure you’ll hit an “imperfect legacy” nine times out of ten.

  4. C’mon you men. There is something ‘off’ when an artist’s renderings of women outside of his immediate family are depicted in a negative, sometimes sinister light. You wouldn’t excuse racism because of a dark, difficult, upbringing, why do you excuse misogyny, and why is it wrong to for the writer to express her point of view on this matter? Boys will be boys and we just need to lie back and think of England, is that it?

    1. I’m a woman and I fail to see how his artwork is misogynistic. This isn’t to say that Munch himself wasn’t a misogynist irl (how many men weren’t back then?) but if what I’m seeing here constitutes misogyny then 95% of the depiction of women in art that is so frequently heralded around these parts is misogynistic too.

      The guy had mostly troubled relationships with women, so that may be an explanation as to why he didn’t paint them with sunshine, butterflies and rainbows over their heads. You don’t have to like what an artist is selling you, but they don’t owe you an unmessy, uncomplicated and unproblematic reality in their art. Furthermore, it’s hilariously tone deaf to be angry at a man who existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for not holding progressive views on women. Chances are whatever favourite artists you have from that time period were also sexist. Heck, a lot of artists who are from the most recent generations most likely still hold backward views on women, and I think that ought to be a more pressing issue for both you and the author than sermonizing a guy who’s been dead for more than 70 years.

  5. It bugs the hell out of me when articles about artists, any artist, are written with such norrowness, self-righteousness and contempt, not to mention ignorance. In truth, Munch’s sexism pales tremendously in contrast to the overall rampant bigotry still currently entrenched within the artworld, and among art historians, art critics, college art departments and art institution boardrooms.

  6. I remember seeing a retrospective of Munch at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid and walking away like, “Oof! That guy had issues with ladies.” I think it’s valuable to critique the representation of women in his work, especially in the context of the era’s changing social norms regarding women’s sexuality.

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