This year, Paris seems to be a bit bereft of top shelf expositions. The Toys expo at the Grand Palais doesn’t really attract me too much. Orsay’s Oscar Wilde’s melancholic England sounds a bit boring, the Louvre’s Great Emperors of China expo seems like a repeat of the same that I saw a few years back at the British Museum and at Musée Guimet…let’s just say it is not a bumper crop full of the “big names” that draw crowds here: Picasso, Matisse, Manet, Monet, Modigliani…so that probably explains why when I headed over to see Munch three days ago, the wait was for over an hour and I deferred my visit until today. I suppose that this is the only “big” name draw at the moment, so folks are flocking to it.
As for the expo itself, I am a bit on the fence. As far as the space is concerned, other expos on this right side of the 6th floor of the Pompidou seemed far, far bigger. I think that they may have only used up half of the available floorspace because the window bays that look out towards Montmartre and Buttes Chaumont were completely hidden which is unusual for an expo here. When I visited De Stael, Mondrian, and other expos in this space, it took me well over an hour – sometimes two – to go through the whole exposition. OK, for Soulanges it only took my 30 minutes but his stuff in black is kind of like that an I was really in a rush that day. As for Munch, I wasn’t in a rush, but the expo only took me 30 minutes to cover, text and all. So, something seemed to be missing. The expo started out rather interestingly with two rooms of six paintings each of the same subjects but separated by ten to fifteen years in the two spaces. However, it started immediately to wander. Oh, and by the way, don’t come here looking for The Scream or Melancholy because those are safely (well maybe or maybe not) back at the Munch-museet in Oslo. [Side note: I visited that museum back in about 2005 just after they lost The Scream and The Madonna had been stolen and they had implemented the weirdest security system which required one to enter and leave the museum 3 times to see everything because of where they were obliged to add security equipment. I can only hope that they improved this system by the time they redisplayed the two works in 2008!] So the big names are not here. There are some interesting paintings – particularly of snow-covered lanes like in the expo poster, and disheveled workers leaving nameless factories and a few of the self-portraits. There are also some photographs but they are so microscopically small that it is hard to appreciate them – particularly with the hordes of people pushing and clawing to get a look at the same time. I think the most interesting section was the part about him painting his own eye after it became ill and damaged – admittedly very modern. However, what was missing was really context. They showed the nude next to a bed series as well as two of the murderesses but without telling the story of how his ex-lover Tulla Larsen shot him accidentally in the hand (very, very symbolic for a painter) in a lover’s tiff. Folks that were ignorant of this story could not be expected to grasp the significance of some of these works when taken out of context.
As for Munch himself, I think his is quite important particularly for the universality, of course, of The Scream and his almost nihilistic, depressing view of human nature which bespeaks of the horrors also of WWI and the coming WWII and the nightmares that inhabit all of us. I like to think of his style as being closer to the Fauvists than to the Expressionists but then I am not an art scholar. For me, the sensualism in Munch is more of an afterthought, almost imposed by his bohemian lifestyle and times, rather than a real lurid source of pleasure as it seems to have been for a Schiele or Klimt. At least, that is what comes across to me from his work. The expo itself does almost no stylistic analysis in fact but just stays more superficially on the themes (primarily autobiographical or social) and media (painting, photography and film) employed by the artist. I suppose I was expecting something more grandiose and complete from a Pompidou expo.
Overall, I came away a bit bewildered by what seemed to be missing rather than fulfilled by what was there. If you have never seen any of Munch’s work in person, this expo can serve as an OK introduction but to really understand Munch, you’ll need to go see the Munch-museet in Oslo or wait for another, more complete retrospective. As a final barometer, when I really like and expo, I purchase the catalog. This time I perused the 44€ catalog and found it as disjointed and incomplete as the expo itself and thus passed up the opportunity. I guess all expos cannot be great as much as I wish that were true.