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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.