Munch & Hirst @ Tate Modern: All and Nothing

London, Media, The Arts

I took a stroll down to the Tate Modern yesterday and caught a double art bill for a quick bit of Compare & Contrast…
The (invisible) elephant in the room at the Edvard Munch show was the absence of ‘The Scream’, and yet in many ways it’s already there in so many of his later paintings. There weren’t even any studies on display. We tend to think of him as an Edwardian artist, but much of his more mature later work is the most resonant and powerful.

Setting aside Munch’s dabblings in film, most of which seem gauche and not terribly interesting (except for his obsession with all-black VS all-white characters) there are a great many multiple/reworked paintings exploring sickness, privacy and isolation, yet they never feel cold or unfeeling. Rather, a powerful emotional bond between characters emerges as they embrace in sadness, eyes averted, or stare directly out at us from retreating roadways. Although he often favours separate figures in semi-urban landscapes, there’s a sense of motion and fluidity that shows his interest in cinema. Figures are caught unawares, as if they were not quite ready to pose. Interiors are more claustrophobic, but even these are as decorative and brightly coloured as French Impressionist paintings.

In the group pictures there’s a fascination with doppelgängers, ghosts, spirits and eerily transparent people, as if everything earthly is transient. The most haunting paintings come at the end of his life when Munch depicts himself alone and haunted. One has him leaning into the frame, slender and dark-eyed, like someone who has already died and begun to fade from view.

About the Hirst it’s hard to feel or say anything interesting. I went. I saw blowflies (alive) and butterflies (dead, arranged in circles like Edwardian pictures and alive, filling a room you walk through), cows and sharks (dead in formaldehyde), some pills on shelves, lots of boring coloured dots and a gigantic gold case filled with jewels (quite pretty). The one exceptional piece, to me at least, was a large cod-Victorian marble statue of an angel that had been cut away like an anatomy model, but this too suffers from having been commissioned by the artist and manufactured by someone else – art at a distant remove.

Nothing here presented any world view, emotion or thematic resonance. Everything could have been made by teams of workers in different countries, and no doubt was. It’s probably the largest exhibition of cognitive blankness ever assembled, a fistful of student gimmicks in search of a soul. Or perhaps just a very rich buyer. I came out of the Munch thinking about the shape of my life. I came out of the Hirst thinking about buying a sandwich.

7 comments on “Munch & Hirst @ Tate Modern: All and Nothing”

  1. Bob Low says:

    My wife is keen on modern art-although has a healthy scepticism about the wilder reaches of ‘conceptual’ art-and we saw a Hirst exhibition at one of the main galleries in Edinburgh. I found the experience disturbing, but not in the way the artist probably intended.One of the pieces which has stayed with me consisted of an elaborate, large glass display case containing various species of dead fish individually mounted in a strange kind of procession. It was cold, fascinating, and made me wonder if this is how Hirst sees people. Most of the other pieces consisted of the usual collection of dead animals and colourful wall charts. The exhibit which I found perhaps most revealing about the artist himself, was a small black and white photograph of the young Hirst, smirking like a juvenile delinquent, posing in a mortuary next to a severed head.I was reminded of old news pictures of American soldiers in Vietnam proudly displaying ‘trophies’-ears mainly-taken from the bodies of dead Vietkong soldiers. I was left with the feeling that I was surrounded by work created by a sociopath with a gift for self promotion. I didn’t feel like buying a sandwich afterwards. The over-all effect was oddly impressive, but I have never had an inclination to look at any more of his work again.

  2. Matt says:

    Quick US/UK English tip I’ve picked up recently: versus is shortened to vs. in the US, and v. in the UK. As ever, our version of the language makes things more obscure, and long may that last.

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    I have to say I much prefer my art hanging on walls, I went to The Guggenheim Bilbao years ago & came away awfully disappointed. The building was fabulous, as was Jeff Coons Puppy, but inside . . .I kid you not one whole room was dedicated to Armani. . .yes Ricky Martin’s leather trousers are now art. There was a whole slew of smashed up tvs, neon squiggles & video installations. I felt I’d wasted my entry fee, and coming at the end of a backpacking trip I wish I’d bought food instead, or maybe skipped Bilbao altogether.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    I get vs. – v.
    But what, pray tell, is “a large cod-Victorian”?
    It sounds like an upscale dish or a really old take away from a fish & chips.

  5. Bob Low says:


    Thanks for the tip about thr Guggenheim Bilbao-my wife has shown an interest in going there in the past, but on the basis of your description, it doesn’t sound like the type of place that would appeal to either of us. As I said, my wife is quite open-minded about modern art, but even she would draw the line at Ricky Martin’s trousers. Ricky Martin pickled in formaldehyde however…….

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Yet another Chris Fowler blog to pass on to my non-computerized friend. I don’t know what a cod-Victorian is, either.

  7. glasgow1975 says:

    cod = mock/sham/faux in this sense.
    As for Bilbao, it didn’t help I was there Sun/Mon/Tue, Sunday = Catholic Country/Closed, Monday = Museums Closed, leaving me with a brief window of Tuesday morning to do anything. That was 2001, maybe things have progressed, and as for the art itself, I think it constantly changes, the Armani was certainly a touring exhibit! I’d suggest checking the events & choosing to go when something interesting is visiting . . .it is an amazing building.

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