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.