“You come away from Munch realising he was a hell of a lot more than the guy who painted The Scream” – Munch by Steffen Kverneland
The fourth entry in Self Made Hero’s Art Masters series (after Vincent, Pablo and Rembrandt) concerns Edvard Munch, Oslo’s second most famous export after August Strindberg (or third most famous if we agree Anders Breivik has assumed a certain global notoriety) and the man responsible for that most easily stolen (apparently) of paintings, The Scream (in all its many forms). If you’re approaching this, as we would assume some do, as a sort of Cliff Notes biography, you’ll be left with a few gaps in your knowledge (not least the last 40 years of his life, which are dealt with in a patchy and threadbare hopscotch); if you’re approaching this as much as a fan of graphic novels as a fan of Munch, there is fun to be had. Because Kverneland has a lot of fun, inserting himself and his buddy into proceedings as they make their way about Oslo (visiting the famous Munch museum, trying to find the spot where The Scream is set – it’s actually two locations but, Kverneland argues persuasively, also neither), drinking and having a bit of a laugh, as Munch himself was known to do, at times, when he wasn’t brooding intensely (which he does from time to time).
It’s a non-linear read so we don’t hit Munch’s upbringing until the middle of the book, the much more important tale of drinking and whoring around Berlin in the company of his on-off friend August Strindberg and other firebrands such as author Stanislaw Przybyszewski and anarchist Hans Jaeger. As with Pablo, there are portions of the book that feel as if they are more truly concerned with a scene than any specific individual in it. And there is much in the way of carousing. These guys are either furiously declaiming one another, taking massive umbrage about perceived slights or worshipping the same woman. There is a lot of woman worship (and the self-professed misogyny of a writer likes Strindberg comes across – at least here – a bit like, “Well, if I can’t have them all, I’m going to hate them all!”). Which translates itself as a lot of sex. There are lots of bent legs and bare bottoms on show here.
There are also portions of the book, however, that strangely transcend the graphic biography genre, such as when Munch is momentarily obsessed with a married woman and has a lakeside tryst. The art is such that the narrative thrums with possibility – words, for once, get in the way. It’s strange and beautiful, to coin a phrase. Munch, himself something of an obsessional sort, not given to the demands of love, is somewhat derailed when love makes demands on him and these make for interesting narrative asides – but the asides are themselves put aside more often than not by the more conventional demands of filling in the blanks (where he was born, who his family were, how they got along etc). Zipping back and forth between older Munch and younger Munch (Kverneland works hard to make sure every quote is directly attributable to the great man himself), as well as several others who were close to him (like his assistant Adolf Paul), we get something of a picture of how he viewed himself and was viewed by others.
Does it bite off more than it can chew? Certainly. Can it decide whether it’s one artist’s hymn to another or a more straightforward biography? Not quite. Does it have the flabby open-endedness of something like Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland? Very much so. And yet, at the same time, is it, at times, the best entry in the Art Masters series so far? Yes. Yes it is. Rather than functioning as the be all and end all of Munch’s life (if you’re interested, you’ll either have already read other biographies or you’ll want to head off in that direction after this), it’s best approached as a riff, a diversion, a pile of pebbles placed on the grave of a fine artist, one who arrived on the scene and got the backs of the establishment up (and we’re all for that). Do we have any advice for anyone else looking to make an entry in the Art Masters series? We do and it is this: maybe think about who you are writing about and, even if they were friends with other famous people, don’t forget (or at least try to remember) who you are writing about because there are definitely times when you are reading Munch that you want to drag Kverneland by the scruff of his shirt back to the story he’s telling (and there are times when you think, yeah, he wasn’t interested in this bit of the story at all). But this is, as we have hopefully said, only part of the story and there are times when the good time Kverneland is having leaps off the page like a frothing pint of ale. What’s more (what’s most, in fact) you come away from Munch realising he was a hell of a lot more than the guy who painted The Scream. Which is just as it should be.
Any Cop?: Imperfect (but then what isn’t?), Kverneland’s Munch is still a lot of fun.
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- May 10, 2016 / 9:00 am