The Experimental Self: Edvard Munch’s Photography @Scandinavia House

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey and brown walls in a series of 3 connected rooms. The photographs are either facsimiles of collodion contact prints or gelatin silver prints, made between 1902 and 1910, and later between 1927 and the mid 1930s. The show also includes 2 vinyl enlargements, 1899, 1938, 2 lithographs, 1895, 1906, 2 woodcuts, 1902, and 1 9.5 mm black and white film, 1927, silent, 5 minutes 17 seconds. Organized in conjunction with the Munch Museum in Oslo. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s long interest in printmaking and the graphic arts, it seems only fitting that he would at some point pick up a camera and test its unique properties of mechanical reproduction.

Across his career, Munch made countless woodcuts, engravings, and lithographs, from quick etchings and lithograph crayon works that were akin to sketchbook drawings to elaborate woodcuts with several layers of inks that were more similar to his finished paintings. In each case, he actively pushed the individual artistic medium to its technical edges, each printed impression made into a distinct variation, his moods of melancholy and alienation and the many traumas haunting his inner life turned into visual expressions.

As seen in this survey exhibition, Munch largely brought the same sense of aesthetic exploration to his amateur exploits with photography. Almost immediately, he was drawn to the ambiguity found in the careful staging of photographic self portraits, where his intense self-scrutiny began to reveal the complex brew of emotions that lay simmering beneath his surface. His first pictures generally find him seated and formally dressed, either in his studio or in his drawing room, the shutter release gripped in his hand as he offers a stoic visage or deadpan profile to the camera.

But Munch quickly moved on from straightforward seeing. The billows of light that inhabit the backgrounds of some of his gloomy dark interiors seem to have provided some photographic inspiration, and soon deliberate flares, wispy filters, and bright blasts were slashing across his compositions. From there, it was a natural step to more complex distortions, particularly multiple exposures and ghostly transparent forms, whose very ephemerality seemed to be a good match for Munch’s existential dilemmas. Figures stutter into weak repetitions of themselves, and Munch himself is repeatedly seen mid-dissolve or lost in momentary blur, as if his personality was on the verge of breaking up. The result is a set of self-portraits that feel quietly vulnerable, his psychological anxieties given form as indistinctness.

As any competent 21st century selfie maker knows, the camera is also a powerful tool for role playing, and Munch seems to have grasped this right away. Beyond various versions of his central troubled artist or pensive persona, he styles himself as a triumphant nude warrior (with sword raised in masculine glory), a confidently bohemian painter working nude on the beach, and as a version of Jacques-Louis David’s Marat dying in the bathtub. A later series of closeups seems to be a perfect foreshadowing of the playfulness of Snapchat, Munch’s frowning (and aging) face decorated with jaunty hats and his profile set to boldly carve out negative space against the white sky. Breakfast time was his most consistent moment for formal compositional experimentation with the camera, with flattened tables jutting into frontal space and spooky figures (often one of his nurses) emerging from dark backgrounds in the same poses that inhabit in his paintings.

On the basis of the images on view here, it would be a mistake to conclude that Munch was a particularly talented photographer. But what we can glean from his trials and experiments with photography is a deeper sense for his ongoing drive to find aesthetic and personal expressiveness. Using a camera to document the subtleties of dread, or pain, or longing, or spiritual anguish has never been easy, and yet Munch took up the challenge and made some better than serviceable images that convey the uncertainty of those emotions.

Had he made a more consistent commitment to photography, perhaps Munch’s images might have converged toward the unsettlingly heightened emotional landscape of his best paintings. As it is, we see glimpses and traces of that restless mind at work in these photographs. In trying to encourage the camera to slough off the skin of everyday reality and expose the roiling turmoils underneath, Munch was deliberately turning the medium against itself, encouraging the precise eye of the machine to show us things that are inscrutably human. That his photographic successes are ultimately uneven is attributable both to his relative inexperience with the medium and the immensity of the photographic challenge he decided to take on.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. And given their role as an archival backdrop to his artworks in other mediums, it is not surprising that Munch’s photographs have effectively no secondary market history.

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