The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photography
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait wearing Glasses and Seated with two Watercolors at Ekely, 1930, original was a gelatin silver print. Photo: Courtesy of the National Nordic Museum; property of the Munch Museum.

The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photography

National Nordic Museum, Seattle, WA - To Jan 31, 2021

by Matthew Kangas

After over 20,000 artworks were bequeathed by the artist to Oslo’s Munch Museum, guest curator Patricia Berman could draw deeply on a heretofore unseen aspect of Edvard Munch’s oeuvre, his photographs and films. Having also curated an exhibition comparing Munch’s and Andy Warhol’s prints and photographs, Berman was keen to realize the crucial role photography played for both artists and how much they share. With this exhibition, it now appears that Munch (1863-1944), the godfather of German Expressionism, was also experimenting with photography and its oblique insights into human character.

When this exhibition opened at Scandinavia House in New York in 2018, critics pointed out that these works would not seriously enhance or detract from the great artist’s reputation. The man no less than Sir Kenneth Clark called the greatest Northern European painter led a life cut into two parts: ecstasy and the mundane. Plagued by the deaths of both his mother and his sister, Munch early on accepted a pessimistic view of what Museum of Modern Art curator John Elderfield called “a fallen and fatalistic world of disconnected fragments resistant to being ordered.” After his 1908 nervous breakdown, he returned to Norway and expressed a wider range of emotions, with death never far away.

Thanks to careful selection and thoughtful presentation, we learn how, as it did for the Impressionists, photography affected how Munch viewed the world, literally changing and challenging spatial perspectives when seen through the distorting, yet uncannily real, camera lens. The self-portrait photos by Munch make him appear more vulnerable, less depressed, glaring at the camera, foretelling both Warhol’s serial stares and Robert Mapplethorpe’s defiant sneer, with typically haunting prescience.

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