Edvard Munch: The Wrong Kind of Angels

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Following themes of anxiety, angst and mental health DAO asked Dolly Sen to write about Emoting Munch – a creative writing workshop she ran at the British Museum on 10th May in conjunction with the exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst

Edvard Munch, The Scream. Lithograph, 1895. Private collection, Norway. CC BY 4 The Munch Museum.

When I was young and lost in the revolving doors of madness, I could not verbalise what was going on in my mind. I would point to Munch’s The Scream to show what I was going through. The scream that has so much to say but cannot make itself known.

It wasn’t till years later that I read about Munch’s life and understood what was behind his art. Life was not a neutral experience for him. He drew breath into intensity most of his life. Munch had his struggles with mental health “My condition was verging on madness – it was touch and go”. He was susceptible to thoughts of suicide in his youth. He once wrote in his diary, “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death have stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Some of us know the shade of those angel wings – the wrong kind of angels – but the wings of those angels seemed to have smothered Munch before he even took his first breath.

When Munch was born he was such a poorly baby that they considered whether it was worth breastfeeding him or not. Beautiful life did not come next. His mother, sister and brother all died young; another sister was institutionalised. Maybe he didn’t want to paint pretty flowers. Instead, he explored life, death, pain, sickness, love, angst, and death. One painting  – Death in the Sick Room – recalled the time when his sister Sophie died aged 15. Munch didn’t paint at the time of her death but years later, suggesting that time did not heal his wounds.

Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895. (detail)

In many respects Munch is less of a kindred spirit and more of a nodding acquaintance in desolation. Yet I was grateful to be asked by Liz Porter, the then Access and Equality manager, to run a creative writing workshop in response to the exhibition ‘Love and Angst’ hosted by the British Museum.

The writing workshop would primarily be open to people with mental health difficulties, but members of the public could also access it. The workshop came in two parts: the participants would view the exhibition first and then I would facilitate the workshop. The actual exhibition made me stagger in its breadth. I was unable to go up close to the artwork; the pain of it made me stop short. I felt I couldn’t tread closer without stepping into his heartbreaking skin.

Back in the learning department I checked in with the participants because the work in the exhibition is so intense. I wanted people to be gentle with themselves. I tried to be gentle. I tried to keep their wonderful but bruised hearts as protected as possible.

print of a man and a woman

Edvard Munch 1863–1944. The Lonely Ones. Colour woodcut 1899. Licensed under CC by The Munch Museum

I had some of Munch’s work printed and laminated. People also took photos of exhibits to work from. I gave the group a warm up exercise asking them to look at one of Munch’s pictures and ask 10 questions of the figures depicted. Writing is all about the specifics and questions are a great way to direct stories into unexpected directions. People’s questions displayed a striking sensitivity, compassion, and intelligence.

Then we went deeper into the emotion of Munch’s work. I gave people the choice to write anything they wanted in response to the work they saw. I also offered prompts to stimulate new ideas. One of the more popular ones was around The Scream: What is the Scream feeling? What would help him?

Eugene Little gave haunting, beautiful responses to both questions.

So – The Scream
by Eugene Little

So how far down the soul does it come from?
Or is the soul already gone?
Lost – gone forever.
A new mind of fear from the terrible void.
Beyond black
Beyond the labyrinth
Beyond darkness

The scream – does it even come out?
The chassis of the mind
Tearing itself apart
Every thought, every glimpse,
Each and every sound
The numbing, the skull more alive
Than ever – inside the head.
Beyond the mercy of pain –
Insanity.

What Would Help the Scream?
by Eugene Little

Mercy
Mercy
And more mercy
A journey into the soul
Kind ears essential
Patient minds, trying to listen
To what cannot be explained
Willing the journey into that
Impossible place
– With another human being.

Kris Hillquist came up with this powerful piece full of pain and attitude toward a faceless world, in response to the Anxiety lithograph.

Kicking against the System
by Kris Hillquist

The faces
They have no faces
Autonomous, anonymous
Blank
Interchangeable
Blank
Are you Elliot?
Is this what you see?
Tear it all down and start again
Or run to a place deep inside
No wonder you are fucked.
Kicking against the system
Of blank faces
Of systems worthy of Kafka
Of blank faces
Sausage factory jobs
TV reality show relationships
And Tinder
Don’t forget Tinder
Swipe left
Swipe right
Maybe this one is just right
Kicking against the system
Of blank faces

Karen wanted to write about Munch himself, offering a perception of him that is both unexpected and kind.

The Spiritual Self of Journey
by Karen Parkinson

I stepped through a journey of someone else’s time and space. I concentrated deeply and in depth and studied. I felt a lot of intimacy and reflection of the self, the loneliness, the fear.

Who are we, I say, and we are trying to say something about how we truly feel? Are words enough for us to understand or do we merely adventure somewhere where there is no contact? Is it at all relevant, or is this picture we portray a hidden secret? Can we all do this I wonder, or is it for the chosen few?

Dream I say, no matter what darkness lies within, reveal the real truth about oneself, open the new and close the old. Never look back, for it has gone. Adventuring together, we feel so much far away – all on a pathway forever – never-ending, never departing, only away from the loss, and then we gain more – new beginnings, new surroundings – just like being born, a constant wonder to our minds, simply do not fear the end, as we all move onto a never-ending journey. I know this therefore I give you your meaning – for we are all endless.

Yes, we are all endless, the right to be beautiful even with the wrong kind of angels on our side, innit Munch?

Edvard Munch: love and angst is on exhibition at the British Museum until 21 July 2019. To book please go to www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions For details about access email access@britishmuseum.org