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> > > Review: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern
sepia photo of the artist edvard munch

Edvard Munch. Self-Portrait with Hat (Right Profile) at Ekely 1931 © Munch Museum

Tate Modern are showing a retrospective of the later works of reknowned Norwegian painter Edvard Munch until 14 October. Deborah Caulfield reviews the exhibition, which contains works from a period in the artists life when he became visually impaired.

My favourite art historian Robert Hughes reviewed the 2005 retrospective of Munch at the Royal Academy in the Guardian. He said that hell could be defined as "being locked in a small room with Edvard Munch for all eternity."

Indeed. Mention Edvard Munch and what springs to mind is his angst-ridden expressionistic work 'The Scream', painted in 1893 and credited by Sotherby’s as ‘a pivotal work in the history of art.’

This image, together with his 'Sick Child' series and various ‘vampire’ works, is largely responsible for Munch’s reputation as a morbid, crazy, self-obsessed, sexually tormented, 19th century, Nordic misogynist. Not for nothing did Robert Hughes call him the ‘most miserable northerner of them all.’

However, visitors to Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye will leave the exhibition with a cheerier view of the artist, which can only be a good thing.

Highlighting the oft forgotten fact that most of Munch’s work was done in the 20th century, the curator Shoair Mavlian’s view is that Munch is therefore very much a ‘modern’ artist.

Despite being one of the most prolific self-portraitists ever - he painted hundreds, and the exhibition dedicates a room to some of them – it seems that Munch also had a healthy interest in the world outside his own head.

The exhibition aims to show that there is more to Munch’s art than psychological disturbance. While it is certainly the case that childhood trauma, grief, mental ill-health and alcoholism continued to fuel and inform his work throughout his life, his work deserves to be seen and appreciated as more than emotional outpourings from an agitated mind.

To this end, the exhibition helpfully brings together some rarely seen works, including photographs, film, watercolours and sculptures. These and the exhibition’s clever narrative reveal Munch’s concern for his external world, the social, political, technological and cultural events and developments of his time.

'Workers on Their Way Home' 1913-14 - and other works in which figures are shown in movement and/or cut off in the middle by the picture’s lower edge - makes more than a passing reference to contemporary cinema and, perhaps, Cubism. There is also some social commentary here.

The exhibition’s attempt to make a particular case for Munch’s photographic and film output, with the caveat that his creations were made as an occasional amateur, didn’t work too well for me.

Despite watching it three times, my reaction to Munch’s lovingly restored 4 minute movie, made with a handheld Pathé-Baby, was more embarrassment than admiration. The projector was the more worthy exhibit, in my view. Full marks for having a go, Edvard, but you should have followed the manufacturer’s instructions and kept the camera still.

A whole room in the exhibition is devoted to pictures Munch made during convalescence following a serious haemorrhage in his right eye, when he was 66 years old.

Munch was intrigued, excited even, by what was going on in his eye and the effect it had on his vision, which was considerable but temporary. He painted what he saw, including dark shadows - ‘blind spots’ - caused by scotoma.

Two paintings (included in the catalogue but not in the exhibition due to their fragility) from this period stand out. 1) 'The Artist’s Injured Eye' (and a figure of a bird’s head) 1930-1931 and 2) 'The Artist with a skull: Optical Illusion from the Eye Disease' (1930) show Munch lying in bed covering his ‘good’ eye to enable the full effect of what he saw - dark blobs, shadows and strange shapes - through his ‘bad’ eye.

These paintings are remarkable for their openness, honesty and insight, as it were, into Munch’s way of coping with potential sight-loss, which of course he feared and dreaded.

This exhibition greatly added to what I already knew, and challenged what I thought I knew, about Munch. I discovered that he didn't burn himself out in his 20s, or succumb to TB or venereal disease. He survived Spanish flu, bronchitis (no antibiotics available), bouts of ‘neurosis’, fist fights and dysfunctional relationships, living to the ripe old age of 81.

So if you think you know Edvard Munch, think again. Better still, go to the exhibition. Tell them DAO sent you.
Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is showing at Tate Modern until 14th October 2012

The Tate Modern website also contains an article by Michael F. Marmor on Edvard Munch's eyesight and the works he created during the period he was visually impaired

The next BSL talk at Tate Modern will be on Friday 3rd August at 7.00pm. Please join architect Martin Glover for a tour of the changing architecture of Tate Modern.
Meeting Point: The Information Desk, Level 0, in the Turbine Hall

The tour will be repeated the following week, on Friday 10th August at 7.00pm, in spoken English with a lipspeaker, notes and portable induction loops.

Find out more at