Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness
Oslo, the Munch Museum, 27 January to 17 April, 2017
On January 27, 2017, the exhibition Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness opened in the Munch Museum in Oslo. This exhibition, which I had been invited to curate, integrates a selection of paintings, some graphic works, and a sculpture by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) with our videos of Madame B. See for more on the installations Madame B Installation pieces.
If I chose a photo of myself in the exhibition (on the right of this page), it is because I still feel both enchanted and astonished by the combination. A triple concept underlies the exhibition, which emerged from my immediate reaction when the invitation came. First, to make sense of the combination of the paintings by Norway’s greatest artist and our own work with moving images, I considered the moving qualities of Munch’s technically still paintings. Second, I needed two intertwined mediations. Flaubert - rather than just our videos - and Munch; the cinematic in the work of both the pre-cinema writer and the artist who did know the (early) cinema. Third, the theme of loneliness, so obviously important in the work of both artists, and foregrounded in our videos, needed to be connected with the aesthetic theme of the cinematic.
photo: Ove Kvavik, Munch Museum
I also felt the need to establish equality between the art forms by advocating (implicitly, by means of providing seating) durational looking. This is, so to speak, the aesthetic quality of the visitor. Most paintings and video screens are hung low, so low that people immediately commented on it. The benches in front of the paintings allow a longer experience of the paintings on eye level. This encourages visitors to look longer than is usual, while being comfortable, a duration that is conducive to meditative looking. Instead of passing by, walking by the paintings as if they were wallpaper, and feeling one’s legs hurt after a relatively short time so that the final parts of an exhibition get the short shrift, now everyone can sit down, choose which works most appeal to visual contemplation, and thus have an experience of art mostly unheard of. The chilling figurations of loneliness in the photograph above show the material set-up. They also demonstrate the theme of the exhibition, the loneliness that is especially stark in this fourth room. After the cinematic, loneliness was the second idea that came to my mind.
The Wedding of the Bohemian, 1925-26. photo: Munch Museum
This is most impressively figured in the poster-picture of the exhibition (above). Here, with the empathy the isolated “bride” solicits from the viewer, Munch clearly complicates the reputation of misogyny so frequently attributed to the artist. This is the connection between Flaubert, Munch and our Madame B on the emotional, affective, and thematic level. Thematic exhibitions can be monotonous if they don’t harbor an aesthetic counterpart. This was, for me, the “sideways look” that produces loneliness, a lack of visual engagement and openness to dialogue. And this receives a counterpart if we consider that in the cinema, as different from the gallery, spectators sit looking straight ahead, without visually engaging others, even if the theater is crowded.
Photo: Ove Kvavik, Munch Museum
Below is a 10-minutes video tour of the exhibition. Although, of course, it cannot approximate the experience of the reality, it gives a first impression and will hopefully entice people to go to Oslo and see the show. The video literally takes you through the exhibition room by room, with the titles of the rooms visible. This is meant to give you a sense of how the itinerary follows the life phases of my fictional characters Emma and Edvard, each room having the walls painted in a darker grey.
A substantial book (275 pages) accompanies the exhibition in which I analyse most of the works included in it in terms of loneliness and the cinematic, and the sideways look that binds the two. Not a catalogue, the book holds theoretical discussions of many aspects of the exhibition, analyses of passages from Flaubert’s novel and compares some of Munch’s paintings with other paintings, from Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt van Rijn to Marlene Dumas. This book can be acquired at the Munch Museum and in art-oriented bookstores. It is distributed by Yale University Press.
This exhibition was particularly challenging to set up. Some 90 artworks that are vulnerable and need protection for security as well as for climate conditions; and the 19 screens video work, with its technological requirements. Videos emanating light, painting and especially graphic works having restrictions for light, while visitors must have the best visual access: lighting was an adventure in itself. With this short video we wish to pay homage to all the installers, both the crew from Warsaw, EIDOTECH, directed by Radek Pater; and the crew from the munch Museum. Everyone was totally dedicated, professional, perfectionist… and the result shows!
The opening of the exhibition, on January 26 (for Friends of the Museum) and 27 (general opening) was a very special event. Underscoring the self-reflexive quality of the exhibited art, the main actors of the videos came and performed in the lecture hall, interrupting my opening speech, and in the galeries.
photos of performances at opening by Rena Li, Munch Museum
The exhibition is well visited, way beyond the expected vistors numbers. Queen Sonja of Norway and Queen Margrethe of Denmark visited the exhibition on March 6th.
The exhibition has solicited unusual responses. Not only were there many reviews, but the very first one was so brilliant that someone from the audience translated it for me. On this follow-up page a selection of the first responses give a sense of the range of these reactions:
Responses to the exhibition
photos: Michelle Williams Gamaker
The set-up of the exhibition is a pseudo-chronology: not the lives of the artists but of the progress towards ever-increasing loneliness ending in death of the two figures, “Emma”, the creation of a recluse author who is rumored to have said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” and of “Edvard”, protagonist of the self-portraits and focalizer of the images of fantasy, imagining the attraction of women figures, in sometimes aggressive images, but also empathic with suffering girls and women. Both artists combined obsessions with certain topics - for Munch, the “femme fatale”, for example - with a relentlessly experimental attitude towards style that made them both unparalleled masters of modern art. Some critics have even considered Flaubert’s writing (proto-)postmodernist, and this for good reasons. And Munch, who never let go of figuration, nevertheless experimented with various modes of abstraction. For him, this was not the opposite of figuration but its rival or partner. To demonstrate this, I have juxtaposed two paintings of the Death of Marat topic, which demonstrates his anxieties in relationships with women, while the style of the two is so different, especially in their dialogue with abstraction, that it is impressive to see how radical he could be.
installation photos: Ove Kvavik, Munch Museum
The performances brought out an underlying feature of the exhibition. Re-enacting fragments of the stories presented in the videos, the actors underlined that the parallels between the artworks by Munch and the videos based on Flaubert’s writing are not appropriations by dialogic responses. The merging of fiction and reality when costumed actors walk among the audience proposes that these domains are not separate but also intertwined.
Below is a short video of the performance, a photo gallery, and some photos of the exhibition brought to life by visitors.
photos of performances at the opening: Michelle Williams Gamaker and Elan Gamaker
photos of the exhibition with visitors: Michelle Williams Gamaker and Elan Gamaker
We also recorded an interview with Professor Dorota Filipczak from Lodz, Poland, held in the exhibition. In the first of two parts of this interview, 20 minutes long, Dorota asks about the main concepts underlying the exhibition, such as immersion, the refusal of biographical criticism, and more. This has now been edited by Michelle and can be viewed below:
Last but most certainly not least, I want to thank wholeheartedly the Munch Museum curator Ute Kuhlemann Falck. Ute has accompanied me as the in-house co-curator from day one, and the collaboration has been a joy. With great expertise and creative insight, she was always capable of coming up with an instant solution to any problem that occurred. I will never forget her generosity and friendship. Here she is posing in front of her favorite print - one in a row of of three in the exhibition.