Sunday, December 11, 2011

Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne, au Centre Pompidou

I was so upset with the Centre Pompidou yesterday because their poor programming of the Béla Tarr retrospective meant I couldn’t get a ticket and had to go upstairs to the Munch exhibition. So when I went to Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne I was determined not to like it. But to my surprise, there were some lovely discoveries.
Edvard Munch, Starry Night, 1922-24
The museum’s whole premise for Edvard Munch, L’Oeil moderne is to demonstrate that Munch is not the pre-expressionist or symbolist painter we have always been led to believe. In fact, the exhibition claims, he has been misunderstood and should be included in the modernist echelons with the likes of Mondrian and Kandinsky. While I think the Centre Pompidou overstate the significance of Munch’s work by comparing him to Mondrian and other of the great modernist painters, the exhibition did convince me that Munch had an interest in the issues and philosophical problems of modernism and modernist art. Moreover, I enjoyed the organization of the paintings into rooms that each embraced a thematic concern of modernism: autobiography, optical space, compulsion, blurred vision, and so on. Indeed, when looking at the paintings in the optical space room, I was appropriately convinced of Munch’s manipulation of painted space in an effort to explore the changing nature of space and spatial construction in the industrial world of the early twentieth century. Similarly, the images in the final room where Munch painted what he saw through his blind eye were approaching, and I stress approaching, the metaphysical claims of a figure such as Stan Brakhage.
Edvard Munch, Travailleurs rentrant chez eux, 1913-14
This said, however, it must be made clear, Munch may have had all these ideas and been exploring these phenomena but one would be hard pressed to call his pursuit successful. I could not honestly support the idea that he was a painter who somehow contributed to the re-articulations and transformations of modernist art. All of the paintings are more like sketches than a sustained interrogation of the role of painting in the modern world, a quality I would have assumed to be the pre-eminent concern of modernism. Munch’s paintings may have engaged with theoretical intentions on the canvas, but I am not convinced that medium provided him with solutions to the problems of painting.
Edvard Munch, Self Portrait with a Hat in Ekely, 1930
Ironically, for me, Munch’s less sustained explorations into film and photography were far more interesting than the paintings. Who knew that Edvard Munch had made a film? The fragments of various films in existence were edited together into 5 minutes and 17 seconds of footage, footage that, even though shown on DVD, was rich with the materiality of the medium. The fragments oscillate between an observatory eye and an experimental, avant-garde exploration of the medium. The latter may have come accidentally, but even if this is the case, these fragments tell of this critical moment of cinematic development, a reflection of the modern moment, at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries. Munch’s camera watches two boys peering through a fence, and then it moves, as if uncontrollably, to catch the next scene of urban life. It’s in these movements, often giving the appearance that Munch carries the camera with the lens cap off, the film still exposed accidentally, that we see the play of light and shadow in the air, on the surfaces of the city, across buildings and bridges. And when the focus is on nothing in particular, the wear and tear on the film stock, the materiality of motion, and the difficulties of framing, come to the fore.
Edvard Munch, Le Noctambule, 1923

The photographs are filled with two things: self-fascination and the pursuit of transparency through exposure over a long time. The texts accompanying the photographs in this exhibition claim that Munch uses the photographic camera as a mirror in which to see himself. I would disagree: for me, the performative, almost camp, stylized poses suggest that he uses the camera as an audience who might appreciate and affirm his own self-obsession. Again, the flaws and the inconsistencies in the photographs that reveal spirit-like figures, hauntingly superimposed on the concretion of the setting are what make the images sumptuous, and give them the depth so obviously missing from the paintings. This is something no other medium can do, and Munch has captured the complexity of the photographic image in its moving and still variations.
Edvard Munch, Autoportrait à la Marat, clinique du Dr Jacobson, Copenhague, 1908-1909
Of course, the fact that Munch took photographs and shot film footage does not make him a modern man. And it may well be that the moments of the extraordinary in the photographs and films are not really his intention. But nevertheless, even if they are accidental, in them we get insight into the magical possibilities of these exciting new media. Ultimately, I came away wondering if Munch had actually followed the wrong artistic path. While the exhibition didn’t fully convince me of his genius as a painter, I was left wondering if he would have been more successful if he had followed his pastime not his vocation, and become a filmmaker and photographer? 

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