Doing dissertations: Sapna Patel reviewed the Tate’s recent Munch exhibition as part of her research into the artist for her UG dissertation

In the 3rd year of the BA in Art History, single honours UGs are required to research and write a long dissertation of 12,000 words. The department requires its students to choose a particular work of art to focus on, since this tends to focus the dissertation project and its parameters from the off, and encourages as much study of artworks in the real as possible. Here, final year student, Sapna, reviews the Tate’s recent show ‘Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye as part of her researches into Munch for her dissertation about The Sick Child (1907).

Munch, Sick Child, 1907, Tate
Munch, Sick Child, 1907, Tate

Renowned for The Scream (1893, National Gallery, Oslo), Edvard Munch is usually called a “19th-century Symbolist painter” who appealed—and still appeals—to art lovers with his gloomy paintings, which are frequently read in relation to the circumstances of Munch’s own life, and especially his traumatic childhood. Tate Modern’s ‘The Modern Eye’ (which closed in October this year) assembled 60 paintings from the Munch Museum in Oslo, as well as rare film and photography, to demonstrate that there is more to Munch than just The Scream. The exhibition chose to divert attention away from Munch’s typical works, which often represent the ‘psychology of isolation’, and focused instead on Munch’s interest in new technologies and innovative media at a time when film and photography were becoming increasingly popular. I went along to ‘The Modern Eye’ exhibition because I am currently researching Munch as the topic of my dissertation, which focuses in particular on his The Sick Child (1907). In my dissertation, I hope to demonstrate that in this painting, Munch did more than to mourn the death of his sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in 1877. Usually art historians have proclaimed this as being the primary motivation behind Munch’s picture. Visiting the Tate’s show was, however, exceptionally refreshing, since it shows Munch in a different light, signalling a departure from the typical biographical approaches usually applied to the artist and his works.

Beginning the day with a 6am start and the London Midland train services breaking down at Hemel Hempstead, I finally arrived at Tate Modern at noon following a delightful walk along the Thames in the sunshine. Twelve rooms each demonstrated differing themes for the exhibition. The first showed Munch’s passion for using a variety of media in his works. Displayed in a small room, exhibition-goers were shown Munch’s development from earlier self portraits (done in the traditional medium of oil paint) to lithographic examples, lithography having been recently perfected in Munch’s Germany. An array of personal photographs from the artist’s life and childhood were also on view, including touching images of Munch playing at the beach and Munch’s pet dog, which I believe highlighted Munch’s gentle and fragile life and his warm attachment to his family. This room in particular achieved the goal of the show’s curator, Nicholas Cullinan, to demonstrate how Munch engaged with modernity and how everyday life affected his paintings. Cullinan’s aim was developed in the eleven other rooms, where Munch’s expertise, especially his familiarity with modern techniques, was further showcased.

Having walked around the exhibition, I felt particularly attached to the second room that focused on ‘Reworkings’, not only because it showed two versions of The Sick Child, but also because it really demonstrated Munch’s artistic achievements at the start of the twentieth-century, which has since earned him such an important status in the canon of art history. Cleverly arranging reworked paintings directly opposite their earlier versions, viewers were able to note differences in Munch’s conception between original and modified compositions. Munch combined both his haunting childhood memories and his love for painterly experimentation in his reworking  of The Sick Child (1925) where the overall effect is looser and conveys a more relaxed style compared to the 1907 version where he brutally scratched and scraped paint off the surface, possibly reflecting the sheer angst he felt from the traumatic event of his sister’s death.

Overall Tate Modern’s show truly demonstrated Munch’s various artistic achievements in hitherto unexplored ways, flagging-up his interest in technological developments and the use of electric lighting to create striking visual effects in his works. Seeing Munch’s collection of works in this sense further reinforces the argument which I advance in my dissertation: that Munch was more of an artist who sought to be known for his artistic merit rather than his personal history. The show confirmed for me that Munch’s choice to paint The Sick Child seven times was not in fact a result of his knowledge of Freudian writings on the death drive. Munch’s depiction of his sister and the motif of an innocent child can, instead, be placed in the context of a broader trend: numerous other artists such as Käthe Kollwitz were also representing images of sick children in their bedrooms during this fin-de-siècle period and this motif would appear to be a result of Munch’s artistic success.

One comment

  1. Really interesting article! You’ve really inspired me for writing my own dissertation this year. Thank you for sharing your insights. Good luck for the future, it looks like it’ll be bright for you. 🙂

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