‘A Craving for Crystallisation’: Themes Suggested by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

‘I shall no longer paint interiors, people reading and women knitting. They will be people who are alive, who breathe and feel, suffer and love.’
Edvard Munch

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the prints of Edvard Munch. (British Museum, London, until 21 July)

Munch was a troubled genius. Born in 1863, he grew up in Kristiania (modern day Oslo), a city that like many others at that time had been shaken by industrialisation, political upheaval, poverty and disease. His father was a medical officer, severe, pious and dogmatic. His mother died of TB when he was 5 and his sister died of the same illness when he was 13. Another sister was taken to an asylum. He was himself a sickly child and he worried throughout his life that he had inherited his family’s mental health issues. As a young man he fell in with Bohemians and nihilists. He took to drinking and brawling, and became an alcoholic. He couldn’t sleep. He thought about death all the time and contemplated suicide. 

'The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side from the day I was born.'

Munch channelled all this stress and anxiety into his art. A self-portrait has skeleton arms. A mother despairs over a sick child. A crowd walks towards us with blank, empty faces. A melancholy man cradles his head in his hands. A woman stands alone on a shoreline with her back to us. A naked couple kiss by an open window. An anxious figure puts its hands to its ears and screams.

‘There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.'

We may find it hard to identify with Munch as an individual – he just seems too tortured, confused and self-pitying. But he certainly captured something of the modern condition: isolation and angst; feeling alone in the crowd; struggling for identity and belonging, for a sense of meaning and purpose; worrying about love and death. 

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Munch also teaches a number of lessons for people working in the creative industry. From the outset he was an artist with ambition. He was not afraid to cast aside the conventions of the category and set himself lofty objectives.

‘We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create art, or at least lay the foundations of an art, that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.’

Such was Munch’s conviction, that he was untroubled by setbacks. When in 1892 his first one-man exhibition in Berlin closed after one week, he regarded the critical outrage as a badge of pride, a confirmation of his radicalism.

'Never have I had such an amusing time - it's incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir.'

In his art if not in life Munch was admirably resilient. He recognised that his difference represented his greatest creative asset.

'My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?’

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

Munch also embraced conflict and ambiguity. He wanted to express raw feeling and emotional truth in his work, and he was drawn to articulate his own intense paranoia and uncertainty.

This is particularly evident in his troubled encounters with women. For Munch women were frail and innocent, sinister and threatening. He desired them and he feared them. He was possessive and jealous, in awe and in doubt. 

No surprise perhaps that Munch’s relationships tended to be tempestuous and short-lived. Flame-haired Tulla Larsen was so besotted that she followed him round Europe. But he couldn’t face marriage. When they separated he shot himself in the hand and cut their joint-portrait in half.

A woman’s long hair wraps itself around her lover. Is it an embrace or an entrapment? A woman puts her arms around a man’s shoulders, his head bowed. Is she consoling him or preying on him? 

'My afflictions belong to me and my art - they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety, I would have been a rudderless ship. My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life.’

We can also learn from Munch something about the power of the repeated image. He returned again and again to the same themes: the melancholy loner, the jealous lover, the femme fatale, the sick child, the haunting moonlight, the enchanted forest, the existential scream.

He explored these themes in paintings, lithographs and woodcuts; in etchings, drypoints and mezzotints. He experimented with bold colour washes; with heavy outlines, sharp contrasts and simplified forms; by cutting the print block into jigsaw pieces and reassembling them.

With every new articulation of a subject Munch brought a fresh perspective, and the images gained resonance through repetition.

'The point is that one sees things at different moments with different eyes.’

Munch sold more than 30,000 prints in his lifetime. They gave him access to a broad public, made him famous, financed a comfortable later life and enabled him to keep hold of many of his paintings - which he loved so much that he called them his ‘children’. 

So, although it’s hard to identify with Munch the individual, his art echoes with profoundly modern themes; and he teaches people in creative professions some powerful lessons: hold lofty ambitions for your craft; be resilient in the face of criticism; channel your emotional conflicts into your work; celebrate your difference; and embrace the power of repetition.

‘Art is the opposite of nature… Art is the human craving for crystallization. Nature is the infinite realm from which art takes its nourishment.’ 

Munch spent a good deal of his life travelling around Europe. But for his last 27 years he lived, comfortable and alone, on his estate outside Oslo. Despite all his paranoia, hypochondria and melancholy, he reached the ripe old age of 80. He died in 1944 confident in his own immortality.

'From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.’

 

'Oh, it's not easy to resist temptation,
Walking around looking like a figment of somebody else's imagination.
Taking ev'ry word she says just like an open invitation,
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation.

Like a finger running down a seam,
From a whisper to a scream.
So I whisper and I scream,
But don't get me wrong.
Please don't leave me waitin' too long,
Waitin' too long.’

Elvis Costello, 'From a Whisper to a Scream'

 

No. 229

Is Beauty Good?

Is there a moral responsibility to make products, experiences and communications beautiful?

Earlier this year I attended an exhibition of Ancient Greek sculpture at The British Museum. (Defining Beauty)

Graceful young men with muscled torsos and tousled locks; pensive women with tastefully coiffed hair, gossamer veils and elusive smiles. The sculptures were at once naturalistic and idealised. Elegant exercises in posture and poise, expertly carved from creamy white marble. It was an inspiring show.

The Ancient Greeks were the original humanists. They subscribed to the philosopher Protagoras’ view that ‘man is the measure of all things,’ and they attached a particular value to the human body. Their gods readily adopted human form. And whilst other cultures had associated nakedness with vulnerability, the Greeks considered nudity to be heroic. They practised nude in their gymnasia and competed nude at their games.

The Greeks also theorised about beauty. Aristotle wrote that ‘the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation.’ Polykleitos’ Spear Bearer was designed according to mathematically determined ratios of the perfect human body. Myron’s Discus Thrower was an exercise in order and balance. One arm grips the discus, the other hangs loose; one leg bears the body’s weight, the other is relaxed.

Given this fascination with physical form, it is perhaps no surprise that the Greeks often spoke of the virtuous man being ‘beautiful and good’ (‘kalos k’ agathos’). For the Greeks there was an ethical dimension to beauty.

One can’t help thinking that our own culture’s obsession with the body beautiful began here. We attach an incredible importance to beautiful people, to how they live and what they say. We’re obsessed with appearance and attitude, self-image and selfies, pouts and poses, diets and disorders. We want to walk like a supermodel; talk like a film star; look like an It Girl. It sometimes seems so out of control. Like the Greeks, we assume that beautiful people are better people.

We should, of course, beware Greeks dispensing wisdom. They were wrong to associate physical attractiveness with moral superiority. They were wrong to suppose that they could be arbiters of beauty, or that it could be reduced to a mathematical calculation. But I wonder were they also half right? Is there nonetheless an ethical dimension to beauty?

Many years ago my old Ad Agency boss, the maverick Planning genius John Madell, told me that, if we intrude upon people’s lives, we have a responsibility not to pollute those lives with the asinine and the ugly.

I’m sure he was right. I well recall there was a vogue in mid ‘90s brand communication for the rough and ready, the low-fi and the under-produced. I hated that period. Amateurism celebrated in the name of authenticity and ‘keeping it real.’

Art direction matters. So does quality in type and design, casting and wardrobe, illustration, photography and film. So does craft in music and sound engineering, reproduction, retail space and product design. So does expertise in editing, identity and user experience, consumer interface and the customer journey. These elements create the architecture of brand aesthetics. And I believe good brand aesthetics are a moral imperative in the modern age.

Advertising and marketing occupy so much space, time and attention in people’s lives. Shouldn’t brands acknowledge that there is an ethical responsibility: to make the world a little more interesting, a little more thoughtful, a little more beautiful?

For some time now brand leaders have recognised that we have a social responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. Is there not also a social responsibility to leave the world more beautiful than we found it?

Because beauty is good.

No. 53

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 9

A Creative Business Is No Place for a Recluse

Charles-Valentin Alkan standing.jpg

I’ve been listening to the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Romantic and intense, thoughtful and complex, sensitive and slightly troubling.

Alkan was a friend of Chopin who lived, composed and performed in Paris in the nineteenth century. He was clearly something of an eccentric. His works included The Song of the Mad Woman on the Sea Shore and Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot.

Alkan had been a child prodigy and was a popular concert pianist.  But, after the age of 35, he became progressively reclusive. There are only two photographs of him and in one of them he has turned his back on the camera. Alkan died in 1888 at the age of 74, reputedly when a bookshelf fell on top of him. One obituary rather cruelly observed: ‘Alkan has just died. It was necessary for him to die so that we could be sure of his existence.’

I think most people that have worked in the creative industries have at some point yearned to give it all up and get away. Creativity is all about self-expression and purity of intent. But business is all about listening, adapting, negotiating. There’s an inherent tension here, a source of daily frustration.

However, whilst the reclusive life is available to the fine artist, the commercial creative needs to engage with the world, to be in tune and in touch with culture. The best commercial creatives in my experience watch film, play music, visit galleries, read books, carve spoons. They have interests outside work. They have a hinterland.

 

Denis Healey RIP (1917-2015)

‘I have always been as interested in music, painting and poetry as in politics.’
Denis Healey, The Time of My Life

I should mark the passing of Denis Healey.

Healey was a towering political figure in my youth. He was Defence Secretary in the '60s as Britain adjusted to life after Empire; and he was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1974 to 1979 when the economy was fragile and politics were turbulent.

Healey was fit for this combative environment as he had seen active service during the Second World War. He’d been beach master during the allied invasion at Anzio. Fiercely intelligent, eloquent and argumentative, Healey didn’t suffer fools and didn’t go out of his way to make friends. This may explain why he never quite made Prime Minister. He was a rarity in British politics: a robust moderate.

Healey also popularised the use of the term ‘hinterland’ to indicate depth of experience, interests and character. He argued that the absence of culture compromised politicians’ judgement.

I’m sure this could be said of business people too.

 

Celts: An Aesthetic for the Networked Age?

I recently attended Celts, an exhibition of art, armour and decorative craft at The British Museum.

It transpires that the idea of a unified Celtic identity is rather misleading. The word ‘Celt’ was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to describe various neighbouring European tribes. It was only in the eighteenth century that antiquarians applied the term to the early inhabitants of Britain and to the modern peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The curator suggests that the one consistent theme across all uses of ‘Celt’ was a sense of ‘otherness.’

Certainly you get a sense that the Celtic aesthetic was completely at odds with the classical beauty of the Greeks and the hard, straight lines of the Romans.

There are copper cauldrons embossed with curling, curving coils; there are knotted, twisting, turning tendrils; decorated armlets, anklets, war horns and neck rings. There are shields etched with spiralling serpents and sinuous snakes; bronze boars and birds, basket weave broaches. There are richly wrought Christian croziers and carved stone crosses.

I couldn’t help thinking that this beguiling, looping, patterned aesthetic is appropriate to the networked age. It suggests that within our maddeningly complex, connected world there can be beauty, order, design.

I wonder should we consider Celtic PowerPoint?

No. 52