Edvard Munch’s selfportraits, 1930
What is the phenomenon behind expressionism and current fashion for Edvard Munch? In May 2012, one of versions of “Scream” was sold for $119.9m and is currently the most expensive piece of art in the world.
In photography, like in paintings, expressionism consists of capturing the moment that we find in our minds and hearts, but in reality cannot be found. When I look at Munch’s expressionism, I’m always wondering how to achieve that vision that’s deep inside me using my own medium.
Many of the photography purists believe that is not the way, the one should only depict that what is already there. Many of those “dreamscapes” are truly astonishing, but I cannot help thinking that it is only a part of the truth.
Where is the expression?
“Pure” photographs show the reality that anyone could see in the chosen place at the given time, differing perhaps only in the intensity of hue and color used by their creator. However, such photographs do not convey the emotions that accompanied every person perceiving the landscape. And on this problem we may elaborate, as every scene, from nature or people’s life, is perceived differently by each and every one of us.
It is difficult to accurately present our feelings, ideas and thoughts, or even our mood, in a pure visual form. Seldom do we think in pictures alone, as they are usually accompanied by emotions and sounds. A gourmand will pay greater attention to flavors and fragrances, while other people will notice the subtleties of light or hear the sounds of their surroundings. Therefore, their perceptual abilities are affected by their character, experiences, and personal inclinations.
How should one then attempt to reflect such a wide range of feelings by means of photography? Is it even possible to connect expressionism with photography? Let’s have a look at one of the less pop-cultural, although highly acclaimed, works of Edvard Munch:
Showing the emotion
The Sick Child, 1887
It is definitely a very emotional picture. Its creator spent hundreds of hours trying to portray what he felt when his sister was dying with tuberculosis, right in front of his eyes. As Munch himself put it in his notes, he wanted to accurately present her pale skin and face, as well as the trembling of her hands. Did he succeed? Most of the 19th century critics agreed that he failed. What he showed in The Sick Child is more of a caricature or an unfinished sketch, rendering the whole painting unreal. Even his fellow contemporary painters could not understand what Edvard Munch wanted to express. Europe was at the time under the influence of late impressionism, and experiments were not unknown to the critics. Most of them showed landscapes and scenes from everyday life, rejoicing people bathing in a sea of glistening dew drops on blades of grass, or breathtaking sunsets reflected in an endless cascade of brilliance. Those scenes were, however, depicted in a simplified, but still quite naturalistic manner.
In the late 19th century Scandinavia there were three generations of painters, who created their art at the same time. Painters belonging to the first group were heavily influenced by the German school of painting, and they focused mainly on creating portraits in dark, warm colors. It was a well-developed industry, as pictures were painted not for artistic purposes, but they were rather ordered by the wealthy members of the upper parts of society. The second group was constituted by rebellious artists who worked mainly outdoors, focusing on rural scenes that had been well known in the southern parts of Europe for the previous century, but were only beginning to gain their popularity in Scandinavia. The third group was Munch.
Edvard Munch in his studio, 1938
There is no true impressionism in the history of Scandinavian painting. Scandinavian artists shifted from the classical movement to the most extraordinary expressionism with only the slightest mention of the outdoor portraits. This, perhaps, is the main reason behind the complete lack of understanding for Munch among his contemporaries.
The essence of expression
Now you are probably wondering why do I recall the history of Scandinavian painting. It is indispensable in order to understand in what circumstances did the first expressionistic paintings appear. Munch was one of the first artists who were brave enough to show what they really felt on the inside. Would a young boy, witnessing the death of his beloved sister, really focus on naturalistic details? Would he pay attention to the texture of a wooden wall, the wrinkles on the cloth? Or would he rather notice her pale face and a trembling hand, or the despair of the grieving aunt, sitting beside the failing girl, the shocking richness of the latter’s ginger hair? Other details do not really matter when our emotions take over.
Instead of focusing on the history hidden behind the painting, the onlooker can really experience the emotions that accompany it. We will notice the important details that constitute the atmosphere of the moment. The color of the dress, greenish and pale, immediately implies illness. The contrast of the hair really captures one’s attention, so that we know who is the most important figure in the picture. It is with her eyes that we look on the woman sitting beside her. Her sheer appearance makes us realize, that there is really nothing much to be done, that these are irrevocably the final moments. Is there really a need to show anything else? These details are enough to show the amount of emotions in that room. No naturalistic version of the scene would have conveyed that much. This is expression.
How is one to achieve the same effect in photography? Both expressions and impressions of a landscape are not a novelty. The techniques of moving the lens at the time of exposure, the use of filters and specialized equipment is everyday business today. We see a lot less of expressionism in scenes shot from our life. This situation is caused by the fact that such photo sessions engage a lot of planning, as well as using a wide array of lights and equipment. Such pictures can be found among the works of many professional photographers. However, it is not professionals who fill websites such as deviantArt or Flickr, but rather ordinary people, who lack the means to create expensive projects.
I hope that expressionism in photography will flourish along with the increased access to good, though inexpensive equipment. It is not a problem to obtain a good camera, but the lights and modifiers still cost a lot of money.
What is your opinion?
Is expressionism even possible in photography? Or will it only be an imitation of its painting counterpart? Let me know in the comments.
Næss, A.(2004), Munch. En biografi, Oslo: Gylendal Norsk Forlag AS