Head down to Tottenham Court Road tube station and then swing on round to the British Museum where, thankfully, the queue to get through the security tent which, on some previous occasions has been off-puttingly long, is now, currently invitingly short. Approaching the nothing-to-declare channel I notice a useful little notice advising that among the items one is forbidden from carrying into the Museum are guns, tasers, pepper sprays, explosives and aerosols which, I suppose, is fair enough although I’m not sure whether such admonitory signs would really deter the really determined. Then again, perhaps the point of having the displays is to avoid any confusion or embarassment so that should one of the gatekeepers performing the bag searches come across a Magnum, Kalashnikov or a stick of dynamite, rather than the awkwardness of having to get involved in a long rancorous discussion about the logic and reasonableness of Museum policy, the guard could simply point to the sign and send the would-be vandal packing.
Anyway, I manage to enter the Museum unchallenged and again am pleased and slightly surprised to discover that the queue for the ticket desk is also shockingly short although, comfortingly, I find that I still have to wait about ten minutes to get served since, despite their being six ticketing terminals ready for use, there is only one solitary attendant actually punching out the tickets. In retrospect, of course, I realise that most people will have already pre-booked their tickets online and that the brevity of the box office queue is no indication as to the size of the actual crowds who will be crunched together in the exhibition gallery when I get there in half an hour’s time. For, yes, the appointment on my time-specific entry ticket means that I’ve still got another thirty minutes to wait before I can finally get to see the display of prints by Edvard Munch, the critical appraisal of which is to be the main purpose of today’s blog.
I suppose there could be worse places to be stranded when having half-an-hour to kill but the problem with being surrounded by eight million items of cultural importance from around the globe and across the aeons of history is trying to determine which to seek out for special attention: the winged-lion statues from the gates of Nebuchadnezza’s palace, the stacks of Ancient Greek terra cotta figurines; the Elgin Marbles; the Rosetta Stone; the mummies; the cuneiform tablets? All beckon and all are undoubtedly valuable and valid candidates for reprise visits but, in the end, I decide to conduct a short survey of the Museum shop. And examining this large array of retailing enticements, in fact, proves to be quite enlightening. After all, who knew that it was possible to purchase an eraser in the shape of a blue hippopotamus or a pencil sharpener housed in a small metallic pyramid that resembled those mighty monuments from Egypt’s distant past? Or that there was another outlet, in addition to those duty free shops that clutter up most international airports, where it was possible to buy outlandishly outsized bars of Toblerone confectionary? Not that all the purchasing opportunities here are of such exceptionality. There’s also a wide selection of books that run all the way from a children’s picture book about taxi-rides (presumably directed at parents who wish their progeny to become the ubermensch of the future) up to Gombrich’s Little History of the World. Best value today, however, is the catalogue for an exhibition of Picasso’s Vollard Suite of etchings which I remember seeing some years ago, reduced from £40 down to just £10!
But enough of all that and on up the sprialling staircase to the main attraction, a fairly thorough survey of the prints produced by the great Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch during his most productive period from about 1890 to the start of the First World War. And, I think it’s fair to say that the show does a pretty good job of convincingly confirming that the familiar caricature image of the Nordic mindset as being, how shall we say, not exactly exuberantly optimistic and overburdened with an extravagantly excessive sense of joi de vivre, is not entirely undeserved And although the exhibition is subtitled Love and Angst, I think the majority of the prints on display – and I guess there must be around a couple of hundred to check out – tend towards darker expressions of the latter emotion rather than lighter celebrations of the potential happinesses of the former. Which, somewhat curiously, is not to say that one exits the show feeling especially gloomy. What perhaps elevates the spririt of the viewer, aside from a schadenfreudistic sense of relief that one is not sharing Munch’s own unending personal series of woeful existential crises of conscience, is that the artist manages to produce a succession of very striking and impressive shorthand images to encompass all the various forms of grimly depressive scenarios that made up his mainly miserablist mindset.
Most famous by far of all these quasi cartoonistic pictorials is, of course, the Scream where the man with the lightbulb head crosses a bridge and covers his ears to protect himself against the overwhelming shriek of…of something…of everything…of nothing. Is it nature’s awful sublimity; the meaninglessness of the journey into death’s dark obliteration; the nail scratch of human suffering against the blackboard of historical inevitability; the interminability of Brexit? Who knows? The very fact that the source of anguish is so unclear is probably what has made the image resonate so consistently over the past century and more since Munch first tried to plug his lugs. Although the fact that the central figure has been so utterly plagerised and parodied, and become such a ubiquitous symbol of a kind of comedic horror and faux fear, means that it’s probably no longer possible to look at the original and feel the appropriate sense of empathetic despair. A situation not really helped by the fact that the small Museum shop at the end of the exhibition is itself currently selling silly little finger puppet magnets based on a crude version of the Scream’s central character.
Other iconic images in the display- and there really are quite a few decidedly memorable ones – repeat the same fluid looping lines of the Scream, sometimes linking foregrounds and backgrounds together or merging figures into a sort of holistic continuum, as with the Vampire, in which the male victim is found suffocating under the cascading tresses of his all-embracing nemesis. On other occasions Munch isolates his characters so, for instance, the poor sap in Jealousy is surrounded by a pitch black sea of dark loneliness while the object of his thoughts is left flirting in the background with her new lover.
Aside from all these allegorical scenes inspired by artist’s life among the Bohemian set of anarchists, alcoholics and adulterers in Paris and Berlin, where he seems to have spent most of his time when not settled in his Norwegian homeland, Munch also produced the occasional portrait and self-portrait. And while the pictures of Nietzsche, Ibsen and Strindberg seem to successfully embody the brow-furrowing seriousness of the writers, it’s the self-portraits that I think are the more interesting and revealing. Unsurprisingly, these are not especially flattering. In the one that opens the exhibition, the artist looks a good ten years older than the nearby photograph, although it’s not this artificial ageing that’s the most striking feature of the work but the boney skeleton of a forearm and hand that rests along the base as a framing device and momento mori. A later work, and one of the few that are more traditionally rendered, shows the artist sat in a café in Germany with a bottle and glass, alone and desperately sad and contemplating a very unhappy navel indeed.
To be fair to Munch, not every single one of his prints carries a title like Melancholy, Angst, Despair, or the Lonely Ones, or shows the consequences of syphilis, or the scene of a young child mourning at her mother’s deathbed. There are some exceptions. The chorus of cancan dances at the French Folies definitely suggest a pleasant evening of rumbustious jollity although one suspects that even in the midst of liveliness Munch was already looking forward to the following morning’s rewarding hangover. Similarly, the seemingly delightful Girls on the Bridge might be a metaphor for youthful optimism and hope for the future coming from any other artist. But with Munch it’s hard to banish the thought that the young ladies are very likely staring into the abyss and just trying to pick their moment to jump.
The full price entry fee of £15 is a bit stiff I suppose but about the inflated average these days for a show such as this one. I got in for half price, being the bearer of a National Art Fund card but much better value is the almost unpublicised exhibition currently running in the Museum’s fifth floor Print Gallery, for here the shows are free. And so by way of paying commemorative tribute to another rather talented maestro of the print medium, the Museum has dusted off its impressive portfolio of sixty-five etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn. The self-portraits, landscapes and biblical scenes are all delineated with an exquisite precision that contrasts well with Munch’s more heavy-handed chiseling but I think both artists undeniably pack an emotional punch and seeing the shows together certainly make a visit to the Museum worthwhile. But if you do intend to go then don’t forget to leave your guns and explosives behind.