“Simplifications and misunderstandings have damaged our perception of Munch’s work,” says the Thyssen’s Artistic Director Guillermo Solana. “We have been left with the characterisation, rather like Van Gogh, that he was some kind of tormented, alcoholic depressive and his most iconic work has been turned into an emoticon.”
The museum’s own shop could be accused of doing the same thing by selling bags and motorcycle helmets emblazoned with the panic-stricken effigy. But to be fair the exhibition itself is much more varied as I hope the video below illustrates.
Munch’s work is shown to cover the full gamut of contemporary emotional archetypes and existential obsessions. Themes of death, illness and angst certainly dominate his early life and work in the Paris and Berlin of the 1890s and 1900s but then there is a transformation.
The exhibition’s curator Paloma Alarcó puts it this way: “Early on Munch was very close to literary circles where the heroes were people like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. It was a very dark world. But when he returns to Norway in 1909, he becomes a self-confident and accepted painter. And this results in a more a forceful use of colour that is both vital and expressive.
In fact, Munch overcame a mental breakdown and alcoholism to go on painting until his death in 1944 at the age of eighty. He was inspired by Gauguin and Van Gogh, and in turn influenced the German Expressionists, and even Henri Matisse. And although a solitary man often associated with the angst of modern existence, he was just as interested in love, desire and vitality.
The final room of the Thyssen exhibition features a tellingly philosophical quote from the artist himself:
"In my art I have tried to explain to myself life and its meaning I have also tried to help others to clarify their lives."
Edvard Munch – Archetypes runs until 17 January 2016 at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid and more information can be found on the museum’s English language website. The video is produced by Reportarte.