Beyond the Myth of Munch

March 17, 2009 7:09:46 PM PDT
His painting "The Scream" has become an icon in pop culture, representing the angst and chaos of modern life.But the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Art Institute challenges the myth surrounding the Norwegian painter and print maker.

Munch has become famous for haunting works that appear to represent his emotional instability. His works are often interpreted as reflecting a fragile mental state.

Recent scholarship, however, reveals that the artist was a savvy businessman, ready to project a dark image to attract the public.

"One of the things Munch learned early on that if he created the perception that he was crazy, he was the maker of the Scream, it would bring people to exhibitions that showed his work ," said Jay A. Clarke, associate curator of Prints and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago.

The captivating exhibit brings together 150 paintings by Munch and his contemporaries and illustrates the complexity of a man often seen in one lens - that of a crazed mad man.

"If we look at Munch in the context of his peers, we can see that he was very much like a sponge, soaking up ideas, motifs, paintings styles, technical tricks and organizing it by theme helps us understand more clearly how Munch drew on other inspiration for his own very unique way of painting," said Clarke.

Munch's paintings may not have much shock value to the modern eye. But times were different 100 years ago.

"He painted what art critics at the time considered non-elevated subject matters; figures in interiors kissing; a man and a woman at the end of their destructive relationship; a figure on a cross?the idea that he was painting non-elevated subjects was part of it but also he was painting in this very open and free and gestural style," said Clarke.

At a young age, Munch was scarred by the death his mother and sister. It was a theme he would draw often during his life.

But he was also drew up the Norwegian landscape and long Scandinavian summer days, showing his healthier, brighter side. And he depicted tender moments as well.

Perhaps what makes Munch timeless is his treatment of the suffering and the human condition.

"I think the Scream taps into something in all of us. I think it's one of those images that keeps getting repeated and adopted by various parts of popular visual culture because everyone has had that moment, 'I can't take it anymore,'" said Clarke.

The exhibit Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth is at the Art Institute through April 26 at the Art Institute.