Monday, February 16, 2009
Edvard Munch: Master Painter, Master Marketer
Art lovers like to believe that inspiration and talent comes from the heart and soul of an artist but a new and quite fabulous exhibit called Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth at the Art Institute of Chicago says not always. It showcases the life and work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who painted images of anxiety and despair almost too disturbing to look at.
Munch is most famous for The Scream, a haunting work that reminds us all we are just one step removed from madness. A modern day Scream: I once saw a middle aged business man in New York’s Penn Station walking in circles around and yelling at a pole.
Marketers today can learn a lot from Munch whose style/unique selling proposition crystallized and evolved as he grew as an artist and he saw what would sell. The more succinct his themes – the more powerful his work. He was also one of the first artists ever to charge admission to his one man show, well before his work became famous.
Munch’s most marketable style? Dark human portraits such as Blossom of Pain in 1898 where blood pours from a human heart that sprouts into a lily and Salome in 1903, a shadowy portrait of the operatic heroine who cuts off her lover’s head and then mournfully sings to it.
How could anyone paint such dark images in the Impressionist heyday of frothy, colorful works evocative of light and shadow?
Smart Marketing. Munch played a central role in his own mythmaking and reputation building. The exhibit suggests that he was not insane, in fact far from it. Curators say he cultivated the impression of his own insanity to sell paintings, giving viewers something to latch onto. Stress related brain ailments were under exploration by scientists at the time, and in 19th century society madness was quite popular.
The exhibit shows how Munch, who lived from in 1863-1944, was a technically talented painter who spent his early years soaking up motifs, painting styles, technical tricks and aesthetic postures of contemporary Scandinavian artists and European Impressionists.
The Art Institute, which has one of the most extensive collections of Impressionist art in the world (thank you robber barons of the early 20th century), has laid out the work so you can see the artist’s influences from the brightness of Monet, to the Norwegian emphasis on nature, Nordic myth and folklore, to the German symbolists and their themes of sickness, death and femme fatale.
Munch’s paintings are paired with the work of artists who influenced him – so you can see the connections right in front of you.
In one painting – the image isn’t enough – Munch literally writes copy advertising his vision for the painting. At the base of a young woman’s ruby lipped portrait he has written
“A pause when the world stops revolving. Your face emcompasses the beauty of the whole earth. Your lips, as red as ripening fruit, gently part as if in pain. It is the smile of a corpse. Now the hand of death touches life.”