Sep 2012 Journal

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Art notes (review)

The famous Scream was prominent by its absence at Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at Tate Modern (until 14 October). The curators wanted to stress the subtler images created by the Norwegian artist, who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Yet if not one ‘scream’ was seen or heard, the heartfelt anguish of his soul was everywhere.

It is hardly surprising. Both his mother and his sister died of TB and a harsh and alienating grief remained with him all his days, climaxing in that famous apotheosis of visual sound. He was interested in film, photography and stage production. Working with Max Reinhardt on Ibsen’s Ghosts gave him a sense of the person within a claustrophobic space.

Munch was a near-obsessive self-portraitist, particularly keen to show the process of ageing. But his greatest works reconnect with childhood loss in versions of The Sick Child and The Girls on the Bridge, from 1907 to 1925.

His almost sketchy paintings suggest fleeting but pivotal moments. The genius of The Sick Child is that the deathly pallor of the child’s face is reflected in the white headboard, but contrasted with the vitality of her red hair and the green drapery, all representing life. The mother, though, is already grieving, and in black. The more you study this painting the more evanescent and fragile the child becomes, until you can actually see her fading away.

Developing this theme of loss and isolation, Munch also made six paintings of the Weeping Woman, all nude, against an empty bed with turbulent, spotted wallpaper which suggests tears.

In his growing alienation he depicts young girls, stolid in their bright dresses, staring into the river and away from us. Similarly, the wide angles of New Snow in the Avenue show two still people in the foreground, with the trees falling from side to side, giddy with cold. But their stillness is deceptive. Everything is on the move: swirling skies, trees and landscapes, bodies and faces sketchy to emphasise their growing anguish. Workers on Their Way Home shows rushing figures, only one of whose exhausted faces is clearly visible.

Munch was a great experimentalist. After suffering a haemorrhage in his right eye, he depicted distortions of vision in vibrant circles of colour in order to understand the subjective nature of sight.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition from the Clark Collection, From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism (until 23 September), describes the development of the genre, led by Corot and Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Degas, in the second half of the 19th century. Accurate observation was then the academic gold standard for French artists and these first Impressionists, who opted for naturalism, were rejected by the conventional art world. They were championed by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, formed by wealthy New Yorker Robert Sterling Clark and his wife Francine, heirs to the Singer sewing machine dynasty. Robert Sterling settled in Paris in 1910 and became attracted to the Impressionists, particularly Renoir. He acquired 39 of the latter’s works, of which 21 are shown here. Soon after the Second World War, Clark established his museum in Massachussetts, a permanent home for his collection of European and American art.

Alongside works by the major French Impressionists, the star of this show is Renoir, for his gorgeous and intimate depiction of the female face and form. But the Impressionists’ view of 19th-century industry, with its smoking chimneys intruding on pastoral life, as exemplified by Pissarro and Caillebotte, shows the artists’ integrity in coming to terms with their changing world.

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