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Making More of Munch

What I learn about Munch, as I meander through his museum, is that he wasn’t the happiest of people. The paintings and sketches and woodblock prints suggest as munch (HA! You wondered when I would get that pun in. Sooner better than later, I say. Now we can get on with the serious business of dissecting -- if not flailing -- the artiste.).

About this I won't complain, though: admission to the Munch Museum is free(!), which means that it costs nothing to wallow in the man's self-absorption. And, in case the audience is too daft to catch the drift, there is a placard midway through the serpentine gallery with a quote from the master saying so. It is almost as if the guy was seated at dinner with Shiho and me the night before, answering questions about art. Ultimately he responds: ". . . art grows from joy and sorrow. But mostly sorrow."

Then Shiho would turn to me (or more likely I to her) and say: "this guy sounds like he grew up with Woody Allen. You don't know whether you are laughing because he is so damned pessimistic or because he is so darned right!"

Whatever the case, he is definitely earnest in his convictions. For in the feature-length film that plays in an endless loop in the darkened theater (barren, but with capacity to accommodate 200) in the basement, the narration trumpets the same motif. Reading from his diaries, Munch's voice-over intones: “I inherited two things from my family: tuberculosis and mental illness.”

Not a very promising combination, even under the best of circumstances.

Not to mention that the guy spent most of his winters in Norway.

Indeed, with a mother and sister who both died of the former, another sister who was institutionalized for the latter, and a brother who took his own life (for any causes in-between), one might concur that Munch's bunch had it hard. And certainly after viewing Munch’s collected works, it is easy to see why critics of his first show in Germany dismissed his canvasses as “the work of a madman.” Well, that might be a bit extreme, but the old guard was not used to seeing paintings of sick beds, the infirm, sketches of death and cemetaries. At least not since the time of Breugel.

To be sure, Munch was a man who apparently knew pain.

The pain of loss, above all else. The loss of family members to disease, and the loss of love at the hands of feckless lovers. And, while Munch’s work, itself, is substantial, it is often hard to see that the work, itself, is.

I know you just shook your head on that one (mentally at least). So, to spare you the time of re-reading it, let me restate it as this: there is much to the form of the artist; there is much in his execution of his themes; there may even be something to his themes. And certainly, any one or two or few of his works bespeak a painter of talent; announce that these are paintings that require deep, sustained consideration.

But, as the pieces accumulate, is it not possible that the viewer reaches a point of diminishing returns. When the next . . . and the next . . . and the next canvas only heap on more of the same; more of am identical, repetitive discourse, which, with each next one does not add to our understanding, but numbs us to "the great big truth" (at the very least) or even begins to convince us that that truth is not as legitimate as we previously thought (in the worst case)?

Even his most jarring, his deepest, most quoted and invoked image – The Scream – is not what we often presume it to be. While we often associate it with the pain of human existence, or the disgust with human excess, in fact this is a work that, at root, stemmed from personal anguish; it personifies narrow, apolitical, self-centered suffering.

"I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."

To be sure, the artist who can transform the sensation, the experience on the bridge at sunset into a rendering of ink in line, that person has something special; a gift that we wish to experience, sample, draw instruction from. And yet . . .

Making one's way around the Munch, there is little I spy that would seem to extend beyond his own personal bounds. There is nothing he depicted which was not within his own grasp, within the sphere of his personal experience. And that is a bit of a disappointment.

Yes, art is about communicating or else offering commentary on or insight into human experience. Art that is not personal often -- more often than not -- comes across as unauthentic, as contrived. And yet, art that is too personal more often than not comes across as too intimate, too confined. Art such as that is rarely successful at communicating, for it fails to cross the threshold into the universal.

Munch may have achieved that in a couple of paintings posted in yesterday’s blog. One – called “Separation” – depicted a woman casting off -- away from the man she was once connected with. We see the strands of her blond hair straying, staying in tenuous contact with her abandoned lover; yet they are just remnants in his space; lingering memories, vestigial connections. They are wisps of what no longer exists.

This is a powerful image, a universal experience, of course. Yet, it is simply a moment from the life of a young man who was caught in a dalliance with a married woman; a woman who, at some point tired of her young lover and began seeing another man.

Munch, for his part vowed that she would live to regret it; that he would become so famous, his name so installed in newspapers and spoken in the salons, that she would think (belatedly) only of how she had had a chance with him and threw that chance away. His pain, converted into angry motivation and transformed into will for payback, became his driving force. And of course, the man succeeded. We no longer remember the muse, only the great art about (and, in some ways, for) her, produced by the man she jettisoned. As a negative angel, a dark devil, this woman played an important role in Munch's early art. And – although she may have enjoyed a wondrous, sensual corporeal time on earth in the months and years after she spurned him, we tend not to recall anything about her; yet, her abandoned lover, the artist Munch, lives on.

The theme of woman as duplicitous, as evil, as temptress, as tramp -- well, it is all one grand motif, in fact. And these messages continually crop up in Munch's work.

But so, too, does his glorification -- his sheer delight in -- the female form.

And yet, this is far from unusual for the artist, certainly in the Western tradition. It is par for the course, in fact; one might say, an artist's s-o-p, his (or her) artistic license, their pass for the thoroughfare.

What was slightly different in Munch's art was his depictions of infirmity.

Because such images were generally novel for the epoch, they were seen as inflammatory, as arresting, as publicly offensive. And, while they caused a stir, their production was actually not much more than the artist being literal, falling back on lived history, on what he knew. For these were the images embedded in childhood memory; they were the images lifted from recollections of the demise of both his mother and sister.

Walking the corridors, though, scrutizing the inks and pigments and play of light and shadow, the question that comes to me is: "what is a life?" And more: "what life is sufficient if one is to be an artist?"

I wonder bout the translation of life into art and how substatial a life must be to support art -- let alone, "great art".

Munch is consider "great". But should he be? Was his life substantial enough? Sufficient enough to bear that tag?

And yet: is that a fair question? Is it fair to blame the lad who grows up loving to draw and casts everything else aside -- career, status, stable future, the love of a father -- in order to draw. Why blame the boy simply because what he drew was what he knew; and what he knew was simply dying siblings and naked women and bottles of wine tempting the weak-willed soul. If that is the life he understood and rendered into line and hue, then conveyed it to us . . . is that to be blamed?

But what if an artist lives through a wrenching world war – albeit in a country that was officially neutral and which knows very little first hand of the true hell of the conflict? Should he be blamed if his art lacks any of that commotion, that suffering, that larger global theater? Should he be held to a higher standard simply because we now are able to view the whole of Europe of the 1940s from a greater distance? Should we castigate an artist for not viewing the world through more political lenses? Should we expect more of our artists than the pure Bohemian creed that they were so heartily embracing as they cultivated their craft and sought to liberate their full creative vision?

Is one to be blamed for having a vision which, still, somehow, strikes contemporary sensibilities as more restrained, less engaged, far more modest and less extensive than it could have been? Certainly by comparison to contemporaries such as Picasso or Leger or Ernst or Dali. Through the eyes that we have now, is that fair?

It was these questions that carried me through the corridors of the Munch. And stayed with me long after I had left its premises and headed home.

So, although I highly recommend the man's own one-shop art-stop, for the person in a hurry and still desirous of saying "saw him, done that", I might suggest simply heading down to the National Museum. It is closer to the city center, it has a lot of other interesting art in the collection, and there is still a dedicated room for Munch. Included there (and apologies all around for having it wrong the last time) -- is The Scream, which actually was not being repaired but was on grand display (behind a plexi-glass case). So, too, the early, controversial depiction of his sister's death, along with his famous "Madonna" torso. Then there is a provocative inert-life capturing a spry female sprawled on a bed, an empty wine bottle in the foreground, bearing the title "The Day After". And finally, there is an eerie, enormous piece, catching dancers in the act with the panoply of emotions that social dance can inspire: lechery, flirtation, jealousy, dispossession, depression.

But even exiting that chamber, I have not been dissuaded from wondering yet again: although it is much, despite the fact that his ouvre is substantial . . . even though it is provocative and stimulating . . . is it enough?

Were she dining with me tonight, I might turn to Shiho (since Munch is no longer available to accept the call), and I would ask: "what is art?" And even if she came to Munch's conclusion -- that it was human experience -- we would not necessarily arrive at Munch's solution. Because to him "human experience" was synonymous with "his experience". And viewing the products of that experience -- as wonderful as they may be -- I end up believing that his experience, his lived life, was sadly, greatly incomplete. As harsh as it sounds to say: there was more that could have ended up on the canvas.

And yet, as harsh as that may sound, I don't think it is unfair. It is not unfair to demand of our artists that they extricate themselves from their hyper-insularity, from their profound self-absorption. That is, in exchange for the privilege we accord them to speak to us. That is what artists wish to do, after all: to speak and be heard. Thus, it is not unfair to demand that they channel their enormous sensitivity, their unique talent into a voice that can speak more broadly, about the great expanse of experience, in ways that appeal to greater and more varied needs. If they don't, then they are simply having a conversation with themselves. It is nothing more than public masturbation which we pander to, tolerate and sustain through our consumption of their products.

I know that artists often feel it to be the other way. That fans - their public -- place unreasonable demands upon them; that the desire to hear and see and read and experience ever greater creations becomes a pressure, a pox, that saps them of energy, that dries them of all creative juices. Truman Capote never wrote another book after In Cold Blood. Bob Dylan needed a motorcycle accident to get him off the messiah merry-go-round. Jackson Pollock went the entire ten yards -- terminating his life (and taking another with him) so he didn't have to contend with the "what's next?" voices both inside and outside his head.

Still, and yet . . . as unreasonable, as hyper-critical, as it may sound . . . I don't think it is unrealistic or unfair to say that from an artist such as Edvard Munch, we might have hoped for something more out of his consciousness, through his eyes, from his hands. He was fully capable of something more. Something beyond his immediate realm of action and awareness.

Had he only explored and sought to capture that something more -- if not for himself, then for us.

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