Thursday, 7 April 2016

Munch by Steffen Kverneland Review


(Geddit? ‘cos The Scream!)

Steffen Kverneland’s Munch (pronounced “Monk”) is an epic part-biography/part-art appreciation/whole mash note to the painter Edvard Munch. There’s plenty to like about the book like it’s experimental approach, mixing various styles, and it really is beautiful to behold – Kverneland is an enormously talented artist who took seven years to create this book – and you’ll learn plenty about the background to Munch’s work, particularly his paintings The Vampire, The Frieze of Life, and, of course, The Scream. It’s also sometimes dull, a bit overlong, and a lot meandering. 

The framing device is Kverneland and his buddy Lars Fiske in 2005 visiting real life locations that influenced Munch’s paintings which is the only intrusive part of the narrative from the author’s perspective. When he takes the reader through Munch’s life he cites Munch, his family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues directly rather than interpret it through his voice. It’s a good choice as we get to hear Munch’s own voice though it becomes tiresome reading quotes from the many, many people who appear throughout and then having to glance to the bottom of the page to see who said it, what their dates were, and what they did. 

Munch first became popular in Berlin where his artistic philosophy - “One should not paint as one sees, but as one saw” – leads to controversy but establishes him an exciting new painter. Besides being part of the intellectual bohemian scene, Munch was quite the ladies’ man and a heavy drinker. He moved around a lot but still managed to produce quality work, among them his most famous paintings. 

And… that’s about it, really. It’s not the most fascinating life to read about! He drank a lot, schmoozed with other artists, slept with this woman, drank a lot, met some other artists, slept with this woman, repeat. The stories behind The Vampire, The Frieze of Life, etc. are pretty mundane while The Scream’s background is more abstract and probably has to do with his hectic lifestyle at the time. On top of that, a lot of this book sees Kverneland becoming too bogged down in detail which makes what’s already a sluggish narrative even more slow-moving. 

And while it is an informative read, as a biography the timeline jumps around a bit too much leading to a skewed perspective. The structure of the book essentially builds up to Munch’s masterpiece, The Scream, which he painted before The Vampire and others though we learn about the less famous works long before we get to The Scream. The remaining years of Munch’s life from roughly 1900 to his death in 1944 are rushed through in the scant few pages left before the book ends. It’s a very loose biography that mostly concerns itself with the artist’s major works and little else besides. 

But if the narrative itself is rambling and tedious the artwork more than makes up for it. My word, this is a beautiful book! Kverneland’s approach is to switch between multiple artistic styles throughout, from caricature, to realist, abstract, even incorporating photos. Some panels mirror the famous paintings, some pages are stunningly painted, some barely sketched, and all of it is masterfully encapsulated within the comics format. Appropriately for an appreciation of an Art Master the art is of the highest quality. 

Steffen Kverneland clearly has an enormous love of his subject but his expression of it is more gracefully captured visually than with the written word. Munch is a somewhat informative and uneven read whose real draw is the inspired artwork that celebrates the artist’s legacy.


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