Art Doc of the Week | The Post Impressionists: Munch

At the root of every cliché, so the saying goes, is a grain of truth. One of the resilient cultural clichés is that of the tormented artist, one whose ghosts and demons drive his or her work, but also makes their life a living hell. Edvard Munch is a poster boy for that particular notion of the artist. His iconic painting, “The Scream,” is one of the most recognized works of visual art in the world partly because the existential anguish it captures not only puts forth Munch’s own interiority, but something of the human condition itself. It cements his status as both tortured artist and spokesman for the spiritually, psychically wounded.

Munch's "Love and Pain (Vampire)

Munch’s “Love and Pain (Vampire)”

Born into a middle-class Norwegian family in 1863, he was one of five children. His mother’s death from tuberculosis when he was five set off a family narrative defined by illness and madness, permanently scarring Munch and leaving him with the bleak worldview he’d eventually set to canvas.

One of the great strengths of the documentary The Post Impressionists: Munch is how commentators Carole Guberman and David Addison strike the right notes in their analysis of the artist’s work. Their balance of aesthetic critique, historicizing and contextualizing both art and artist within frameworks that acknowledge arts movements and specific artists that influenced him, and their respectful but candid insights on how his psychological and emotional issues all played out in his work, all give the viewer access to the motivations and processes behind the work. It’s informative but never dry or overly academic. The documentary is a brisk but substantive overview, perfect for novices unfamiliar with the artist beyond “The Scream.” Fans already schooled in Munch’s work and critical studies of it might find it light going.

Munch's "The Dance of Life)

Munch’s “The Dance of Life”

As the film unfolds and we’re taken through failed romances, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, and friendships with a who’s who of European free-thinkers, artists and philosophers Munch associated with, a steady stream of his work fills the screen. His evolution as a craftsman (he was also a much respected and influential graphic artist) is mapped out against examples of the various artists and trends he embraced, siphoned what he needed, and moved on.

An especially rich segment notes how he became enthralled with the Impressionists after a trip to Paris, and from them he “took what he felt was useful to him in the matter of technique… his brush work became freer and more subtle.” But where the Impressionists were mostly drawn to light subject matter, Munch took their techniques and applied them to his obsessions with death, isolation and despair.

"The Scream"

“The Scream”

Unintentionally reinforcing cliché and stereotype, the film’s resident experts note that after recuperating from a nervous breakdown in 1908, Munch’s subsequent work – with only intermittent exception – lost much of the intensity and power that defined his strongest and most important work. His work had been a kind of exorcism; his demons made the work possible. When they were quelled, the work itself became somewhat inferior. He lived another 35 years after recovering from the breakdown, dying in 1944 at the age of 80.

Below the full documentary is a specific look at one of his most ambitious projects, “Frieze of Life.”

Previously on Art Doc of the Week: