February 20, 2009

Munch’s works shine despite AIC’s forced presentation

Either Edvard Munch was a master manipulator, or the Art Institute of Chicago is.Becoming Edvard Munch, the Art Institute’s new exhibit starring the Norwegian artist, attempts to dispel what it calls the more persistent myths about Munch—namely, that he was mentally unstable and owes no debt of gratitude to his contemporaries as influences on his work. Instead, the exhibit puts forth the claim that Munch constructed an elaborate public persona by playing up the myths around himself and his art. The show is organized into a series of themed rooms. It begins symbolically with several stylistically dissimilar self-portraits, the point being that Munch made them so different to consciously manipulate the public’s conception of him. So far so good, but some of the other ways the museum fleshes out Munch’s manipulation aren’t as successful as the comparison of self-portraits.The exhibit is particularly heavy-handed in substantiating its claims that Munch actually benefited from his tortured persona. One blurb states explicitly that Munch received commissions for specific types of works, including a maudlin deathbed portrait of his sister. These blurbs often step out of the bounds of objective observation and become a bit preachy at times.Certain technical aspects of the show also gave many of the rooms a staged feeling. The staging is intended to lure the viewer into the assumption that Munch could turn his anxiety and melancholy on and off according to what benefited him in his career. The Art Institute does a good job of making this assertion. In some cases, however, a little too much of what goes on behind the scenes is left exposed, and the viewer is left unconvinced. Lighting and paint are used a little too melodramatically in the galleries that focus on the interior, sickness, and deathbeds. One gallery, featuring a series of interior still lifes, felt particularly artificial. Several oil paintings—depicting views of open windows and doors from inside moonlit rooms—are displayed in a gallery with deep purple walls. Each painting is illuminated by a single spotlight. Standing in contrast is the adjacent gallery, a stark white room filled with bright, cheery streetscapes of Paris. The blurb on the wall in the first room claims the images displayed deliberately create a sense of claustrophobia and need for escape. What seems more claustrophobic, however, is the set up of the room itself—small, enclosed, and poorly illuminated. The organization of the exhibit by theme—anxiety, melancholy, interiors, bathers, the dance of life—is useful in addressing the myths surrounding those themes, but it can also be a bit disorienting at times, leaving the viewer with little idea of Munch’s artistic progression. The gallery focusing on Munch’s depictions of bathers gives the impression that this was a subject Munch focused on exclusively for a certain period, but a closer look at the dates on each work reveals that they span some 25 years of his career. The great span of time between each work leaves the viewer wondering whether there is much significance in Munch’s revisiting of the theme.Despite the sometimes overbearing presentation, the exhibit does succeed on several levels. In attempting to present a more well rounded picture of Munch, it makes use of some works audiences wouldn’t normally see. Several especially lovely prints, such as the 1896 aquatint “Boys Bathing,” maintain Munch’s trademark eeriness without the typical melancholy aspect. A series of lithographs called “The Sick Child” are quite affecting, but in a different way than Munch’s larger works. The paintings’ disturbing intimacy allows for greater empathy with their subjects than do the mask-like faces of more famous oils like “The Scream.” By the end of the exhibit it is clear that, to some extent, the Art Institute’s claims are true—Munch is indeed indebted to his Norwegian contemporaries in many ways. The landscape tradition influenced many of his works, especially the large oil “The Dance of Life” and the woodcut “Attraction.”The Art Institute’s criticism that Munch’s public persona is largely mythologized makes for an interesting look into the work of an otherwise obscure figure. At times, however, the exhibit falls short of its ambitious claim. Ultimately, Becoming Edvard Munch may have destroyed some myths, but the real successes of the exhibit come in the quieter presentation of Munch’s prints and lesser-known works.