Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Little Night Music

February 15, 2009

Edward Munch Summer Night: Inger on the Beach, 1889
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2009

One other thing I caught in Chicago worth mentioning in the not-so-performing arts department was the new exhibit at the Art Institute entitled Becoming Edvard Munch, a major retrospective of the Norwegian painter and printer. It a bright and pointed show and, no, it does not contain “The Scream”. Well, at least not outside of a small woodcut print version of the iconic and oft-reproduced and lampooned painted image. This omission seems intentional in that the show goes to great effort to separate the artist from the manufactured image of him as a troubled man interested exclusively in the morose and dark side of human experience. Instead, Munch is grounded here as an artist highly integrated and influenced by his impressionist peers both inside and outside of Scandinavia. Not only did he produce works on themes more traditionally associated with his contemporaries, his focus on the melancholic also had multiple referents in the works of peers thought of as sunnier in their dispositions.

Becoming Edvard Munch, which will run through April 26, incorporates many canvases from these peers from the Institute's own and other collections to demonstrate this relationship first hand and makes a compelling argument. Of course there is some risk to this. Suggesting that Munch was less an aesthetic loner than he is usually thought of suggests a not necessarily flattering opposite position – that Munch was more a follower than a leader, painting under the influence of themes and techniques that were currently popular or that he had picked up directly from others. The show points out the duality of most art, produced to meet both for aesthetic and commercially enriching objectives. The exhibit never suggests Munch was simply following trends simply for profit, but it is nonetheless true that one person's maverick is another’s lackey. Munch, of course, is neither one of these completely, but Becoming Edward Munch is successful largely on the ground that it confronts the very stereotypes we hold about one artist whose work may adorn dorm rooms across the U.S., but is by no means the dark and troubled soul some would like to imagine.


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