Boyd Tonkin column: Forget pure art: Munch shows how drama and story can enrich a creative career
The week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Friday 14 June 2013
Unless you have a special interest in Norwegian theatrical and artistic history, it's most unlikely that you will have heard of Kalle Løchen. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never had. However, you will almost certainly know just what his legacy looks like.
In November 1893, aged only 28, the multitalented toast of Norway's bohemian circles – immensely promising both as a painter and an actor – shot himself on a wooded hillside overlooking the harbour of Kristiania (as Oslo was then called). Not coincidentally, maybe, Løchen had made his name in the theatre playing Hamlet to sensational effect.
The dead prodigy had a best friend, also a young painter. A couple of weeks later, this bereft artist exhibited the first version of a work set in exactly the neighbourhood of Løchen's suicide. He wrote that, at the scene, on a day of lurid scarlet skies, he felt "an infinite scream running through nature". Does Edvard Munch's The Scream – since the auction sale last year of one of his four versions for $119.9m, the priciest agony in art history – mourn the burn-out of this beloved shooting star? The evidence looks pretty compelling to me.
To mark the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, you can until October see 270 of his major works gathered into two Oslo museums for a landmark commemoration of a unique journey. I have reviewed the Munch 150 shows for this newspaper's arts pages; but so much else in his and in his contemporaries' stories demands to burst out of the frame. Quite literally so, in the case of the great "Frieze of Life" sequences, of which The Scream forms part. In Oslo, the paintings have been brought together, liberated from their heavy frames and re-composed into the epic emotional odyssey – the visual novel of a life and of an age – that Munch had originally planned .
Seeing Munch in this deep and rich context made me realise how far, for the avant-garde creators of his generation, visual art, literature, theatre and even philosophy fused into the passionate pursuit of hitherto unrevealed truths about themselves, their society and the natural world around them. But high-stakes artistic revolutions always exact a toll of casualties, and Kalle Løchen was numbered among them. Munch himself passed through a long and alcohol-steeped convulsion. It might very well have sunk his story mid-stream as abruptly as the (often comparable) Vincent Van Gogh's. But he came through, to develop and experiment right up to 1944.
In an ancillary exhibition, west of Oslo near the roaring Haugfoss waterfall (where Munch and his bohemian chums set up their easels), Løchen's own work shows how quickly he evolved. Munch himself called Løchen "indisputably the most gifted painter we had". For both, the theatre, with its staging of the soul and of society, nourished their ideal of painting as a narrative of human struggle.
Literary, dramatic, ferociously psychological, Munch's art so often feels akin to the intellectual world of Ibsen, Strindberg, Nietzsche and the other titans of his time and his milieu. Ibsen fed Munch's imagination from first to last, with craggy late masterpieces such as John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken his particular inspirations. The Oslo shows not only display Munch's Ibsen portraits but the remarkable set designs he made in 1906 for a Berlin production of Ghosts at the request of the leading director-impresario, Max Reinhardt. In September, the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Surrey, will again – and for only the second time ever – stage Munch's vision for Ghosts.
Profoundly and gloriously "impure", Munch's paintings – singly and in series – so often resemble novels, plays, poems; even case studies. No wonder devotees of formalist abstraction find this messy, all-too-human Expressionism so hard to take. Leave them to their chilly perfection. For avid readers in the book of life, this story never ends.
'Munch 150': National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, until 13 October (munch150.no). 'Ghosts': Rose Theatre, Kingston, Surrey, from 19 September to 12 October (rosetheatrekingston.org).
Clinton: the funk that never ends
The new Clinton memoir will cause a publishing sensation. Lowly origins in the American heartland, burning ambitions, a barnstorming path to power, triumphs on the national and world stage; but also sudden swerves of policy, dodgy career moves, betrayal from within, thorny tax and legal tussles, and a matrimonial showdown. No, forget that smug duo in DC. We're talking the Clinton who counts: George, funk pioneer with bands Parliament and Funkadelic, outlandishly coiffured science-fiction showman and captain of the still-moving mothership that teleports from soul to hip hop, James Brown to Snoop Dogg. Next spring, at the age of 72, George Clinton will publish his autobiography with Little, Brown. The great man has remarked, on the record, that "They can take what they can take, but they can't take my story. Cause, DAT'S da SHIT!" You tell 'em, George.
Day breaks, and Brown's hell freezes over
In the wake of Fifty Shades, once-genteel novelists clad themselves in sexy pseudonyms to cash in on the mania for female-friendly erotica. You might think Sylvia Day (pictured), whose third Crossfire romp Entwined With You has just knocked Dan Brown's Inferno off the No 1 slot, would be among them. But no: the "Pisces and first-generation Japanese-American" assures her fans that she has always been Sylvia Day. Unlike her second Crossfire book, Reflected in You, which began life (I kid you not) as… Deeper in You.
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