Edvard Munch, Godfather of Gloom, was neurotic before anxiety became big business, as seen in a new exhibition, Love and Angst (April 11 – July 21, 2019), at London’s British Museum. Gen Z hangxiety or farting in Sweaty Betty yoga pants can’t compete with classic vices like drugs and taboo sex.
I went to the show with the manservant, who, like everyone else on the planet, had seen The Scream emoji. Now for the painting, which turns out to be a lithograph, at least the version on display here. Munch, who had lived in fear of lunacy since childhood, did multiple versions of The Scream. It defines him, like his contemporary Freud’s cigar.
The Scream, painting (1893) / The Scream, lithograph (1895)
Munch is not screaming himself, as commonly misunderstood, but listening to the landscape scream one depressing night in Oslo when he’d had one absinthe too many. Though it is possible that the mouth is open wide to swallow more alcohol.
Young Edvard was already addicted to art and confessional outpourings in his hilariously doomy diary when tuberculosis took his mother and favorite sister, leaving him with his schizophrenic sister and religious weirdo dad.
Soon, art and anxiety were combined when he painted his emotions. A symbolist at a time when French Impressionism ruled, he nevertheless managed to become famous and borderline rich in his own lifetime. Up your pastels, Monet.
Head by Head, color woodcut (1905)
A traditional 19th-century melodramatic hero, he shot himself in the paw to upstage his rich fiancee Tulla Larsen when she was threatening suicide. The manservant is practically kissing an x-ray of Munch’s damaged finger, which the artist gleefully called his deformity.
When Tulla married his bestie, Munch sawed Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen in half, keeping the broken parts which are now glued together again. Edvard and Tulla both have faces like jobbies in the painting. It’s probs just as well they broke up IRL and he gifted himself Christmas in a brothel. As indecisive as Hamlet, he would never have gotten round to marrying her anyway.
Fascinated by psychoanalysis before it was fashionable, Munch escaped to Paris where he attended Dr. Chalcot’s infamous displays of his neurotic female patients. Chalcot poked his weeping women with a stick for the instruction, or entertainment, of his audience. Actions have consequences, not always pleasant.
After his breakdown, which he’d been anticipating in anguished art for years, Munch was advised to give up “public drinking.” He retreated to his houses in Oslo, hopefully with crates of absinthe, to paint his own face obsessively until he died old, alone, and baggy-eyed. But he left behind a huge collection of symbolist art — an autobiography of sorts.
Vampire II, lithograph and woodcut (1895/1902)
Which is to say, there is more to Munch than his Scream. Tarnished angels, slutty vampires, sick children, and Madonnas as sexy as sin reveal death, night, and blood obsessions which are still relevant in the 21st century with a bloodsucker resident in the White House and goth grandmother superior masquerading as the British Prime Minister. If Tessie May’s not wearing MAC Nightmoth, she should be.
We project meaning onto the world around us in a collective cultural symbolism. That is how fashion is born and evolves with each generation. Art is part of the culture it lives in but sometimes survives its century reminding us that nothing, or do I mean everything, is new.
It’s time to kiss The Scream goodbye and buy the manservant a fridge magnet. Munch had “no fear of photography as long as it cannot be used in hell.” His Scream is more famous now than the Mona Lisa because it lends itself better to reproduction.
The Lonely Ones, color woodcut (1899)
It’s impossible to get close to Leonardo’s fat housewife in the Louvre as she lurks behind hordes of tourists salivating on the bulletproof glass, which both protects and distorts her. Munch, the Warhol of Oslo, was ahead of his time, using formats that are about reproduction, not originals.
The manservant is fascinated by his fridge magnet, the blatant simplicity of its hypnotic pull complements his greedy child’s mind. Super happy that there is 50% off EVERYTHING today at the British Museum, he whispers, “Let’s buy the Elgin marbles and eBay them full price!”
Vivien Lash is the star of Spying on Strange Men, a noir fiction by her evil twin Carole Morin