Edvard Munch at The National Gallery

  • 1 October 1985
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It is a truism of art history and critiicism to say that Edvard Munch's best work was done prior to his severe mental breakdown in 1908. Before that there are the claustrophobic visions of tortured emotional life, destructive passions, anxiety, arguuments, fights and the notorious inciident involving a gun which led to the artist losing part of a finger. After the pivotal six month stay in a Copenhagen clinic during the winter of 1908-9, all is changed. There is an apparent withdrawal from a volatile closeness to life, a recourse to peaceful, passive retirement, all passion spent.

'Munch and the Workers' at the National Gallery challenges that view. The exhibition reflects a renewed innterest in the work Munch undertook throughout the last third of his life, chiefly in the light of recent developpments in painting, exploring a themaatic involvement that became more and more important to him: the lives of workers.

Though he eschewed direct politiical involvement, Munch's sympathies lay firmly on the side of the workers. He detested safe, decorative art: "We want something more than a simple copy of nature. Nor are we interested in painting beautiful pictures for the living room wall. We should try, even if we do not succeed, to lay the basis for an art that has something to offer ... Art that is created with the blood of the heart." Spurred, perhaps, by the outraged Scandinavian reaction to his art of searing emotional content, he identified the bourgeoisie as the commmon foe of artist and worker alike.

Munch had the courage of his connvictions. Determined to create painttings that were in every sense accesssible, he devoted prodigious time and effort to hugely ambitious mural proojects that would distill the experience of a lifetime. But, like the film-maker who juggles with several projects simulltaneously in the hope of seeing one to fruition, he completed relatively few of these major schemes.

He believed firmly in friezes of large-scale pictures that were publicly situated, both because he felt his work functioned best when seen en masse and because the large surfaces of modern architecture "need life and colour ... Shouldn't frescoes be made again as in the Renaissance? Then art will become the property of the people - the work of art will belong to us all." Th~s impassioned commitment to a socially charged, public art accounts 'in large measure for the pronounced looseness of the majority of the painttings, watercolours and drawing in 'Munch and the Workers'. The more finished, thoroughly worked images tend to be dated earlier, like the beauutiful 'Fertility' of 1902, in which a middle-aged farming couple, both dressed for work, stand on either side of a tree that denotes the fruits of . their labour. Later, indi~idual pieces are more likely to be conceived as studies towards eventual murals, and their informality is pervasive.

The magnificent 'Workers Returning Home', painted between 1913 and 1915, is a case in point. A mass of workers moves towards the spectator like a tide. They are tired, subdued. The picture imparts a vivid sense of their rhythmic, plodding progress. The image is powerful but sketchily stated. Though it is a complete, finished work, it has something of the feeling of a study. It is not so much painted as drawn. Sinuous, curving lines knit the composition together. The thinnness of surface and the nervous, urgent linearity give the picture a definite vitality, a closeness to experience.

"I regard my many small oil painttings and prints, partly, as studies," Munch wrote in 1929. To underline this he hoarded them 0 bsessively, building up a huge collection at his home in Ekely, near Oslo. He was loathe to release any of his pictures from his care because he felt they were vital references for the public .friezes and he was, by then, actually quite antipathetic to the very idea of the "bourgeois art form" of small scale, portable paintings which he termed an "art dealer's art." He optimistically anticipated its demise in favour of grander statements more appropriate to "the age of the worker. "

Easel painting, however, has surrvived, even thrived, and in a way Munch underestimated both its flexiibility and the bourgeois capacity to, assimilate apparent assaults and hereesies, a process memorably described as "the rapid domestication of the outtrageous". The art establishment, for example, has succeeded in making a bankable proposition out of social revolutionary and visionary artist Joseph Beuys, who consistently heads the authoritative list of best art investtments.

Munch's modest statements, recordding in plain pictorial language myriad details of working life - from the' feverish activity surrounding the connstruction of the new Oslo Town Hall, which arises . like a great, monolithic cathedral, a tribute to its makers, to the hard-working woodsman, pausing over the trunk of the tree he has just felled, with none of a conqueror's jubilation, just relaxed muscles savourring a well-earned rest, at ease with his world - these sparely transmitted glimpses are in themselves eloquent alternatives to the sitting room decoorations of academic art that he so despised.

The "spontaneous monumentality" of his later work, as his friend Axel L. Romdahl aptly put it, in its rigoorous social honesty, its humanism, manages to describe a world of indi- r viduals every bit as real as those depiccted in a language of heightened emootional intensity in his earlier, more famous paintings: "Living beings," he had said himself, "who breathe, feel, suffer and love."

Aidan Dunne