Andrew Graham Dixon on the place of Munch in Scandinavian artwork

published on July 3, 2020

Without further ado, Andrew Graham Dixon

That's very kind of Hugo, I should say

that I made inquiries and I understand

that the money that

you've paid for your tickets,

doesn't go to Hugo's fantastic Department of Prints and Drawings itself
It goes into the generality of the British Museum's coffers,

so I would like to just let all of you know that the
possibility also is there for you to become

Friends of the department of Prints and Drawings

which doesn't have as big a budget for acquisitions
as a jolly well should,

so anybody who wants to become a friend and just donate a small amount

or a large amount even better every month, do please think of doing it

because it makes such a difference, the department makes such a huge

difference to the cultural life of Britain

and anything that can be done to keep it going is admirable

As an art dealer said to Hugo just the other day

there's no such thing as a free Munch(!)

We need money

Anyway that's the end of my little promo

So Yes I was going to talk about Munch

and perhaps talk a little bit about perhaps the scandinavian-ness of Munch
and how I see him fitting in to the European culture of his time

which, I have to say, is something that my perception of which has actually been shifted

by the BM's current fascinating exhibition

In particular, Giulia's essay about his nature as a printmaker

in which she teases out all kinds of relationships between him

and other contemporary print makers

which as well, as historic print makers, which hadn't occurred to me

and which are extremely compelling, especially for example

is the way in which he wonderfully plagiarized Félicien Rops for his famous etching; Puberty

and actually makes the Rops image much stronger in doing so

but I recommend the catalogue to the show

So but first of all you know I think the mystery of Munch, if you like, is:
How is it that a man from perhaps the least

developed of all European countries as
the great tides of Modernism swirl

across the Western world, how is it that
someone from the very edge if you like of Modernity,

should have created perhaps its most enduringly popular image of,
at least certainly its most enduringly popular image of alienation

and of a certain way of being that we still seem

instinctively to recognize as Modern, the Scream doesn't seem to grow old

in a funny way it seems still to express a certain type of hysteria that we feel
confronted with our own urban experience

but to return to the picture itself

Sorry – my notes are in a state of perfect chaos

there's a wonderful description of
it by Munch himself or the genesis of it

'I was walking along the road with two
friends' So it's a picture of not much,

it's a picture of a man going for a walk
along the fjord just at the edge of Oslo

if you've been to Oslo you know it's a
city that immediately abuts Scandinavian wilderness or Scandinavian nature

So he's on the edge of the city and he's walking along this walkway next to a fjord

'I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun set, I felt a tinge of melancholy,

suddenly the sky became a bloody red, I stopped leaned against the railing

dead tired and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword
over the blue-black fjord and the city,

my friends walked on, I stood there trembling with fright and I felt a loud
unending scream piercing all of nature'

and there you have it and it's, it's such a

it's in a sense I think of it as it's a

culminating image of the Romantic movement

Munch's great ambition is to paint the soul, to paint emotion,

to paint human feeling to give it a shape and a form

rather than to paint what he called pretty pictures for drawing rooms

well you know that that ambition had

actually already to a great extent been
achieved albeit reluctantly by John Constable

'Painting is but another word for feeling' said John Constable in the early 19th century

and Constables late churning desperate pictures which he's attempting

in which, I think, he's attempting to paint his continuing love of nature

but he's actually depicting his total alienation from the century that he now inhabits,

his alienation from a world in which his wife is dead, think of Hadley Castle,

think of the sketch – Hadley Castle

Munch is in that same tradition

This is a picture in which nature worship as I say it's kind of gone mad,

it's as if he's about to be eaten by nature he's gone with his friends to experience nature

he can't experience it, he can't experience them, they've walked on

and suddenly the hostility of the universe is engulfing him

Because we live in such an interconnected place

and because Edvard Munch is sort of a name to conjure with

you know I think this is a very important
part of his personality as an artist

both in his sense of separateness and his sense of Scandinavianess

and his sense of a certain, a certain kind of dourness, let's say

But also in his absolutely avaricious interest in art when he does manage to get to see it

but he's, you know, he is more
provincial than provincial can be

and he's born in northeastern Norway, he's born in a population,

he's born in a country the entire population of which is probably half of Camden today

You know, I mean, it's tiny the population of Norway

There are no art schools, you know, you if you're lucky as he was

you might get to study with a painter who had learnt to paint and he's perhaps in Oslo

for you to study with but you certainly have known it's, I hadn't realized this, that I think again
it's a Julia's essay but she she points

out that you know he had to go to Paris
he had to go to Berlin

if he wanted to make prints because there's nowhere else that they could

they could make them for you and certainly nowhere else that they could teach you how to do it

So he's in this immensely separate place
which is what Olaus Magnus's book

presents Scandinavia as- it is the edge of
the world

It is the frozen edge of the world, two thirds of Norway I think or is it

well no one third of Norway is north of the Arctic Circle

This is the map that accompanied Olauf Magnus' book

and you can see that it didn't do a
great deal for Scandinavian tourism

You know freeze to death and if you should happen to survive that process you'll be

eaten by a dragon

But that also fed a kind of interest which in turn feeds

through I think very much so into Munch's
work

That it becomes a place y'know because the romantic imagination is interested and and and so is the

imagination of whatever we call the
period after Romanticism

the later 19th century imagination is fascinated by the idea of extremes

whether it's the idea of exploring emotional extremes or
whether

it's actually the idea of going to places that people have never been before,

exploring wildernesses and wastelands somehow getting away

from this burgeoning growing monster of industrialization and capitalism and cities

it's a sort of, you know, people nowadays of course they're disappointed they go to Everest

and find that it looks a bit like a rubbish dump

well that's because 100,000 people go to Everest every year to try and climb it

In those days you know you could still go to this wilderness and there's a connection

also with the gothic imagination, Mary Shelley sends Frankenstein off to die in the Arctic wastes

These extreme places; they become
sort of tinged with kind of allure

and Johan Christian Dahl who is in a sense the father of Norwegian painting

he's one of several artists, Munch would be in terms of people

I'm talked about in this lecture, he'd be
the last in the line, but there's more or

less every Norwegian artist if you look
up their biography they come from an

astonishingly poor background

I mean Peder Balke another artist I'll look at in a minute,

his family was so poor they had to make flour from tree bark

Dahl was very poor he's, if I get his
biography right, I think it's only a sort

of a coalition of local merchants in his
town who think 'this boys got talent'

and if he's got talent we'll send him I
can't remember where I think its Berlin

but Dahl ends up very much, as in a sense
Munch does too, because of the nature of

the Scandinavian art education system or
the lack of it they end up going into

the German orbit and so Dahl very much
becomes an artist in the circle of

Caspar David Friedrich and Phillip Otto
Runge both of whom I think are probably

artists it's very important to Munch If
you think of Munch's interest in solitary

figures in sublime landscapes or in his indeed is interested in cycles

like Runge's times of the day and
so on; there's a very strong German

influence on their almost German by
adoption but Dahl is always although he

practices most of his career in Germany
he's very very patriotically Norwegian

and so he paints things like the
standing stones left by ancient peoples

whose history we know we don't know and
says this is this is my land

it's a land of harshness and extremes but it's a land where you can really be at one with nature

This is I suppose his masterpiece in the National Museum in Oslo

it's probably his most cherished painting
you know so you know you could certainly

imagine that on the cover of Wordsworth
lyrical ballads if Wordsworth have been

Norwegian you've got the rainbow at the
top which is the symbol of God's

covenant with man and below you've got
the Norwegian landscape

and it's an implicit rebuff I think this picture to people living in London

Samuel Johnson what he says 'if you're bored of London you're bored of life'

well a painting like this says well if London's the only way in which you can conceive life

you're not really touching God likewise
if you if you think Paris is your idea

of high civilization well actually we
think this represents the ultimate good life

and it stands at the beginning of a tradition of paintings

that have come to be known in
Scandinavia as the Norwegian nationalist school

Which interestingly as it develops I haven't actually got

any good examples of it so I'll leave
that one there but there's a whole

tradition of artists but basically to
sort of to crudely oversimplify things

what begins to happen in Norway and when
it does start happening from about 1850 onwards

it happens with surprising and
very disconcerting rapidity is that all

of those developments which we associate
with modernity begin to arrive but they

arrive because this is a nation that has
had no Renaissance, it's had no

Enlightenment, it's had no scientific
revolution, it's never really been part

of the Humanist Republic of Letters, it's
a nation fundamentally of farmers

people involved with cattle, people involved
with fishing and a small merchant class

who perhaps read books but it's not, its never had this sort of vibrant thriving intelligentsia

that you know other cultures in Europe have had

so when it begins to get all this stuff it really gets it and it's you know people are shocked

I think there's a statistic again quoted in the Munch catalogue

that the population of Kristiania which was the 19th century name for Oslo,

the population went from 17,000 in 1800

to 230,000 in 1901

And it's caused by, you know it's a little bit debatable as to what it's caused by

things like the advent of mechanized industry but also I
think very significant is that there's a

massive increase in the 1870s and 1880s
again charted in one of the essays in the catalogue,

there's a massive increase in American importation of grain to Europe

The cost of importing grain from America to Europe thanks to the invention

of the steam ship plummets from 20 cents
to 2 cents over a period of about nine years

as a result of which whole swathes
of European agriculture completely collapse

hence the disappearance of the Russian landed aristocracy

hence the massive impoverishment of you know even the English landed aristocracy

and hence massive poverty and displacement in Norway

where people can no longer live in small holdings like this because the

the money for their produce isn't there
so they are forced to go to the cities

new cities like Oslo so this vision or dream of being part of nature

which is so strong for Dahl, within about 20 years it's become a thing of the past

Peder Balke is another interesting character

I mean he's very much within the tradition but I think he's an

interesting character partly because
he's the most recent Scandinavian artist,

Norwegian artist to be acquired by the
National Gallery

very small densely worked oil sketches he's sort of I suppose the equivalent of Thomas Jones

the Scandinavian version of Thomas Jones but his subjects are the deep the deep

Arctic wastes he paints the Northern
Lights he's the first artist to paint

the Northern Lights I don't know if I've
got and that's an example that back

pictures probably about the size of a
paperback book but you see this

tremendous sort of sense of natural
wilderness and hostility and it's it's a

little bit moot as to who he thinks he's
creating these images for because

they're not much sold in his lifetime
he's

actually interestingly in Oslo he's one
of the first leftist trades union activists

so in the one hand he's creating these pictures of an eternal Scandinavia

and on the other hand he's recognizing the huge social problems implicit

in the creation of a modern mass manufacturing workforce and trying

to have give them some means of
negotiating with their potentially

capitalistic exploitative employers, so
he's a very interesting character

Adolph Tidemand no he's not called
Lars Herterwig and he's alive

at the same time as Munch he's he's
painting in the late nineteenth century

but he's relatively short-lived he goes
to Hamburg utterly out he's basically

illiterate, he's a peasant, he's made fun
of by the other students

they break his heart with the girl who he's in love with, he thinks she's in love with him

but and they all play along and then
they suddenly tell him no no she doesn't

give a anything about you and he
basically goes mad and ends up in a loony bin

in fact Norway's first lunatic asylum for eight years

and then just goes back to live on his
parents farm and paints these pictures

in complete isolation for all his life
and they've only just really been

rediscovered and they're all now in the
National Museum in Oslo but there are

other amazing things But Munch and I
think that's part of the power of The

Scream it's as if all of that he is
bearing it all on his shoulders in one

image and he's got it all to say and
he's in his you know he's gone to France

he's seen Impressionism he's been in
Paris at the inception of the

Impressionist movement is there an 1885
I think 1886 so he knows what's going on

he's clearly aware of these currents of thought these currents of feeling

they're present too in the writing of Ibsen but I think it's part of the power of that image of the Scream

that it's almost as if it's all been drawn in so what is the Scream,

the Scream could be alienation, the screen could be the sheer horror of the experience

of which a lot of writers wrote about which now it's almost inconceivable to us

writers wrote in the nineteenth century
before my experience was that each

day I saw everybody and everybody that I
saw I knew now I'm in this thing called

a city and I sigh I might see a hundred
people in a row that I've never seen

before it's terrifying and they're all
you know and this this idea I mean

there's some very interesting quotes
from the work of Krafft-Ebing in the catalogue

to the to the Munch show because I think
that part of the argument of the show is

is indeed that these are factors behind
what Munch is trying to do or what he's

trying to say you know there's a writer
called Krafft-Ebing who says have

you not thought about this for example
traveling in a train how fast your eye

has to move all the time your brain is
being taxed all the time and then you go

into a city and it's natural because
human beings are defensive creatures

you're constantly defending yourself so
you're in the state of high alert all

the time no wonder people drink booze, no
wonder they take morphine or cocaine,

no wonder they they have coffee and they
have tea and they smoke cigarettes

because it's a natural human response
we're so overstimulated all the time

that's what we need to do this to calm
ourselves down and the thing is that for

us most people here that's normal now
and you've even got this accelerating

mechanism called a mobile phone which if
you do manage to have one moment of

presence with yourself, one moment of peace, you know half an hour on this effing train

you're then looking at dead people, or your friends or Elvis Presley

who might be dead and your friend and
and you are driving yourself mad

and I think that's why Munch's picture has
endured so long because he's

depicting something in a shocking way
that we need to be reminded that

how we are living now is really quite
shocking and probably pretty stupid

and he is shocked at that time by it

and again I'm not really talking about the

exhibition because I think the exhibition speaks for itself

and talking about what I think in terms of the background to who Munch is as an artist

so you know these obviously paintings
which aren't in the show but the the

frieze of life, as he calls it, which is I
mean it's interesting because it's what

he's trying to depict are very fugitive, they're the sort of emotions,

that novelists try and snatch and catch at,
they're not they're not the emotions

that can necessarily be easily sermonize
door made Universal that are feeling a

tremor of anxiety, a feeling of jealousy,
a pang of nerves, the sort of things that

say Tolstoy writes about and yet Munch, I think because he's from a Norwegian tradition

and perhaps you know
perhaps because he's used to certain,

y'know the town in which he was born
up in was very Lutheran, perhaps he's used

to certain ways of creating, this Frieze
of life has always struck me rather

as an attempt to impose a kind of old
religious structure onto very very

subjective series of experiences
undergone by Munch

in the company of his three-quarters deranged bohemian friends

who were forever having love affairs with each other shagging the wrong person

shooting Munch in the finger or shooting him and he has that I don't know how what happened

or the stories but you know all being was it one of his girlfriends knows one of his

friends was she married about nine
people as far as I can tell is finally

in a footnote shot to death by a jealous
lover in Tbilisi, of all places!

So this is hardly the stuff of universal moral experience

and yet he is trying to sort of create in the Frieze of life and you get a sense of that in that Museum where

it is it's in that old Hanseatic town
anyway the Munch Museum there

you got the sense of it there were they've where they've arranged them he always wanted

them all to be owned by one place and
put in a you know almost exhibited as if

they were his own version of the Sistine
Chapel

and it's a little bit like Wordsworth organizing the extreme subjectivities of the

prelude into the same structure as
Milton's Paradise Lost

as if by doing that he'll it'll somehow become more solid and it doesn't

it becomes less solid and even more fugitive and I think the same is true with Munch

and when we look at images like that Munch saw that beginning to happen in his time

He understood that alienation is something
that happens when you start living in

this modern way that we do even more and
more and more and more and I think that

in in a nutshell that's why images like
that or The Scream I think they have

lasted in a way that goes almost beyond
whether whether you think that good or

bad as art they're just very perceptive,
and they're very direct, and they speak

about something that's very visceral,
that we understand that we still live

through, you know people having
breakdowns, you know if you ever work

with people who have serious mental
difficulties or you know a lot of those

people that they look at a Munch painting
like The Scream and there's nothing you

know they just say yes it's like that it
was like that so I think maybe I'll stop there

Thank you
[Applause]

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