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Becoming Edvard MunchReview - Becoming Edvard Munch
Influence, Anxiety, and Myth
by Jay A. Clarke
Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2009
Review by Rob Harle
Oct 20th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 43)

Those interested in the art and life of the enigmatic Norwegian artist Edvard Munch will find this book an absolute treasure chest. I think I can say without fear of contradiction this book will be recognized as the definitive work on this controversial and largely misunderstood artist.

The book is accessible to all levels of readership and successfully fulfils the dual role of firstly, a highly detailed scholarly investigation into Munch's life and work, and secondly, a delightful coffee table presentation. Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth is lavishly illustrated with both color and black & white photographs, drawings and paintings, in all 245 color and 48 black & white illustrations. I personally enjoyed the works in Chapter 3 the most, this chapter presents Munch's prodigious output of print images in a wide cross section of print making methods, although lithography was perhaps his main medium. At least two versions of his famous Scream were litho prints, one in black ink on red paper the other black ink on cream card. The coloured version of this artwork was tempera and crayon on cardboard.

After various Forwards and Acknowledgements the book has four main sections, followed by two minor sections. The book concludes with a Bibliography, Checklist, Index of Works and Credits. It is worth mentioning that the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago from which this book is the result was sponsored by the Bank of America, which perhaps accounts for the high quality presentation and depth of scholarly research.
Section One -- Munch's Anxiety of Influence investigates the influences which helped create the artist. "The myth of the artist we know as Edvard Munch was constructed during his lifetime by art historians, critics, and the artist himself, since then it has been reinforced by our collective fascinations with his representations of self-torment. (p. 11)
Section Two -- Creating A Reputation, Making A Myth looks at how Munch helped create the reputation of a perhaps mad artist obsessed with anxiety, death and insanity. "My sufferings are … indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art", further, "Sickness, insanity, and death were the black angels that guarded my cradle" (p. 61) The motifs and subject matter of Munch's images are certainly concerned with angst and sorrow, however, this book goes a long way in showing that Munch was very much in control of his artistic career. He was consistent in reading the market so he could capitalize his art sales and also made money by charging admission to his exhibitions. These are not the qualities of an insane person. He was however an alcoholic, and suffered the physical and mental anguish that's goes with this condition.

Section Three -- The Matrix and the Market: Exploring Munch's Prints looks with incredible detail into Munch's approach to printmaking and the inventive techniques he developed and used. Munch created over 250 prints between 1894 and 1904 -- a prolific number for an artist who, at the same time, continued to paint, travel frequently and organize numerous exhibitions". (p. 113)

Section Four -- The Metabolic Munch: Representing Persecution and Regeneration discusses Munch's alcoholism, his image of mental instability and how he at all times stayed in control of his public image and manipulated the market to the best of his ability to sell his work.

The next two sections are more biographical in content and the titles describe their nature quite clearly.

Section Five -- Individual Works: Tracing Influence from Ancher to Zorn.

Section Six -- Edvard Munch: Life, Art and Travels 1863-1944

These sections will be especially valuable to students and scholars who wish to engage in further research into Munch's life and work.

Munch realized or learnt early on that controversy sells (p. 74), and it seems from Clarke's research that Munch was as equally concerned with selling his art as creating it.  Concerning the opening of an exhibition of recent works Munch said, "There will probably be an awful screaming because of the show ... but the Germans will most probably not understand it. Clearly, he welcomed the potential uproar, no doubt hoping it would again bring substantial revenues, sales and critical attention". (p. 78)

I do not really think Munch's business acumen detracted at all from the power and originality of his art. In the following quote the critic Steinsvik perhaps sums up accurately the essence of Munch's vision which has left a legacy to inspire us and move us at the deepest level. "Munch is more a painter that paints moods. He digs into the most hidden corner, twists himself into the soul of a people like it is, with its desire, its struggle, its suffering. And what he sees with his poetic view, he wants to describe with colors, painting our thoughts, our soul, our desires, our fear, our sorrow and despair" (p. 96)

 

© 2009 Rob Harle

 

Rob Harle is an artist and writer, especially concerned with the nature of consciousness and high-body technologies. His current work explores the nature of the transition from human to posthuman, a phenomenon he calls the technoMetamorphosis of humanity. He has academic training in philosophy of mind, comparative religious studies, art and psychotherapy. Rob is an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel. For full biography and examples of art and writing work please visit his web site: http://www.robharle.com


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