Lingering Ghosts

Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed
an exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York City, November 15, 2017 – February 4, 2018

Edvard Munch The Experimental Self Edvard Munch’s Photography
an exhibition at the Scandinavia House, New York City, November 11, 2017 – March 5, 2018

The paintings and photography of Edvard Munch have arrived in New York City in two different yet complementary exhibitions. A sense of coherence runs through each collection stemming from a similar feeling of being haunted. Together, these works on display highlight the ways in which Munch experimented with art to express themes of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

In “Self-Profile of Portrait Indoors,” Munch moves during the shot, subsequently appearing as a blur. Munch’s close proximity and distorted visage work alongside a deep-focus that ultimately render him as an invasive object. One can imagine it were as if the intent was to photograph the room but instead finding a ghost in the frame. In another photograph, “Self-Portrait with Housekeeper,” Munch and his housekeeper sit posed, and once again, Munch introduces distortion so the two appear as if they were fading from existence. This time, it’s the camera that appears invasive instead of the ghosts. Propped slightly beneath the table so as to give the composition a slightly upward angle, the camera’s position and gaze mimic that of a submarine scope—secret and probing. Munch faces the camera and looks at it in a downward gaze, introducing a further element of eerie.

Complimenting the photographs such as these are his paintings displayed at the Breuer. Munch as the probing inquisitor resurfaces in “Night in St. Cloud” which depicts a solid-black figure sitting in the corner by a window. Moonlight falls so as to illuminate the figure, further revealing the room’s crampedness. Munch’s use of light and space here induces a sense of claustrophobia, and yet he paints the figure as slightly perched forward to gaze out the window. The dark-blues and blacks of the painting reinforce a feeling of isolation, yet the figure’s position undermines this, transforming that solitude into a feeling of comfort. Just as in Munch’s photography where subjects were disappearing, the figure of “Night in St. Cloud” hugs the edge of the frame as if to vanish but ultimately failing to do so. Consequently, his gaze through the window can be viewed as a self-awareness of his own solitude through the implication of an outside, broader world, but the ultimate impossibility to participate in it.

Street-footage shot by Munch himself and on display at the Scandinavia House reinforces this outsider-view. Munch shoots pedestrians and other citizens from afar, and the aesthetic here falls in line with that of early-cinema done elsewhere when the mere recording of cities could produce a spectacle. There’s a sense of excitement in Munch’s images here produced by the fast-pace of urban-life, which initially contrasts the other photographs and paintings of solitude. Yet when distance is accounted for and placed in context with the rest of Munch’s work, one can’t help but notice the solitude of the man behind the camera and wonder perhaps why he remains so far and closed off.

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