Strindberg: a Life – winner of the 2012 Duff Cooper Prize for non-fiction, shortlisted for the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for non fiction and for the 2012 Sheridan Morley Prize for theatre biography.
“What an absolutely extraordinary man August Strindberg was, and what a tormented, demented life he led. I haven’t read such a fascinating biography for ages… You can see how much fun [Sue Prideaux] is having with Strindberg. Anyone reading her marvellous book will have that much fun too.” Sam Leith, The Spectator.
“A rich and absorbing biography…writing the life of a frenzied, unstable genius like Strindberg is an enormous challenge, and Prideaux rises to it with fine authority.” John Carey, The Sunday Times.
“Sue Prideaux has written a lively, enlightening, and at times thrilling life of an extraordinary artist… Prideaux also writes very movingly of the playwright’s last years… she is persuasive in conveying Strindberg’s greatness and the novelty of his achievement.” John Banville, The New York Review of Books.
“An absorbing new study…Prideaux is a deft guide to the absinthe-heavy bohemian underworlds of Berlin and Paris which Strindberg inhabited for much of the 1890s.” Claudia FitzHerbert, Daily Telegraph.
“The best biography I’ve read in ages.” Matthew Sweet, Nightwaves, BBC radio 4.
“A deeply researched and engrossing biography…the copious selection of his elemental canvases and celestographs is one beauty of this outstandingly produced book…Prideaux opens her book with a bravura chapter on the origins of Miss Julie, excels in relating his characters to their living originals, and in showing how they were transformed by the process of post-naturalism.” Irving Wardle, Literary Review.
“Fascinating and beautifully written.” Anthony Beevor, The Sunday Telegraph.
“In Prideaux’s hands, Strindberg, a vulnerable but also naively determined man with striking chaotic hair like a combed back walnut whip, comes vividly to life. Indeed the joy of her book is in the detail, from quoted letters and diaries and some stunning photography.” Tim Auld, The Sunday Telegraph.
“The Strindberg portrayed in this detailed, accessible biography, which coincides with the centenary of his death on 12 May 2012, reveals a man and a writer few in the English speaking world will have the notion of… Sue Prideaux’s lively account of a wilful, passionate, often deranged pilgrimage in search of truth, artistic honest and, finally God, will change our narrow perspective on the astonishing polymath.” Robert Carver, The Tablet.
“An exhaustingly researched biography… and a deft piece of detective work.” David Stenhouse, Scotland on Sunday.
“This unstable genius is brought to book in this fine study.” Sunday Times Culture.
“very readable” The Art Newspaper.
Edvard Munch et L’Oeil modern at the Pompidou
Centre Pompidou 22 September 2011 – 9 January 2012
Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt 9 February – 13 May 2012
Tate Modern, London 8 June – 12 October 2012.
Edvard Munch: l’œil moderne sets out to shatter the myth of Munch the solitary genius preoccupied exclusively by his interior world. About time. Munch was keenly interested in new ideas and quick to incorporate them into his art. He read Einstein’s books on theoretical physics as they came out and absorbed them into his religious writings and paintings such as The Sun, which we see in this exhibition along with several Worker pictures inspired by contemporary politics as Communism swept Russia. Like Hockney, Munch loved new technology; he bought his first camera in 1902 and a cine camera in 1927.
The influence of early film and photography on paintings is a theme of several current exhibitions. We saw it at Degas and the Ballet (Royal Academy, London) and Snapshot: Painters and Photography 1888-1915 (van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, travelling to the Phillips Collection, Washington DC and the Indianapolis Museum) where almost as many early photographs and movies are displayed as paintings. Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard et al. used their cameras as notebooks and to increase their understanding of anatomy and movement. Munch used his camera to smash boundaries.
It was the age of apparitional hoax photography and Munch borrowed the Spiritualist technique of multiple exposures to explore the relationship between the artist and the artwork. First he would photograph his own work, a single canvas or a carefully chosen group, and then he would place himself in front of the work and trigger the second exposure. The solid becomes ghostly, the speculation ontological. Does the transparent figure of the artist grow out of the blurry paintings – or them from him? Sometimes he would move during the exposure like an apparition walking through the work (Munch designed sets for Ibsen’s Ghosts whose Norwegian title Gengangere means those who walk through or revisit). Sometimes he simply cast his shadow across his canvases. Sometimes he sketched on top of the photographs, usually jokey cartoon figures like himself ski-jumping across the sky or the devil popping up in a corner or a dog relieving itself against a tree, and yet he kept these pictures, they meant something to him. Private jokes? A further, and definitely serious development of the identity jigsaw was to take up the poses of his important paintings such as The Death of Marat and photograph himself in the pose. Complex and peculiarly modern, Munch’s photographs were not designed for exhibition, but part of a private thought process.
In 1926 Oslo’s first cinema opened and Munch loved to go, taking his dogs and keeping up a running commentary so the animals wouldn’t lose the plot. The following year he purchased a cine camera and the exhibition runs some of his movies on a loop. Possibly related to Neue Sachlichkeit, the new objectivity, they might claim the title ‘father of video installation’, so random, unshaped and intriguing are they.
This major exhibition of 140 paintings, photographs and graphic works is organised into themed rooms relating to different modern developments of his time. Rooms called ‘The Cinema Lover’, ‘On Stage’, ‘Space’, ‘Compulsion’, and so on, can get a little laboured, not to say bossy, and if you start to wonder why Galloping Horse is in ‘Space’ rather than ‘The Outside World’ you are lost. It’s a bad idea to get hung up on what is where or you’ll miss the joy of a really tremendous show whose first two, and last two, rooms are a curatorial triumph.
The first room ‘Prologue’ shows six of the major paintings: Kiss, Vampire, Puberty, Sick Child, The Girls on the Bridge and The Lonely Ones. The second room ‘Reprise’ shows later versions of the same six. It is a brilliant start to a show that encompasses the full spectrum of Munch’s rich talent. Ravishing landscapes include Starry Night, Red Virginia Creeper and Murderer in the Avenue. Political paintings include Workers in Snow and Workers on their Way Home. Women, naturally, are well represented and the desolate room of twelve versions of Weeping Woman contrasts with the light-hearted and lightly-painted Women in the Bath. Children enchant in New Snow in the Avenue and Children in the Street. A fist-fight with a friend who had questioned Munch’s patriotism gives us the group of paintings on the theme of The Fight seldom seen outside Oslo. Making fun of war, which Munch hated, the mood is early-movie slapstick comedy while the composition mimics the scattering of devastated bodies in the war photography Munch saw in magazines.
Munch was a great innovator in the field of graphic art and this is underrepresented though happily it does include Kiss in the Fields, the astounding minimalist woodcut he was working on when he died. Also omitted are Scream and Madonna which is odd when you think how absolutely modern they were at the time, and remain. Elephants in the room, the absence of these paintings will not help attendance figures.
In 1930, aged 67, a haemorrhage in the vitreous humour of the right eye caused its total loss of sight, a mental and physical disaster for any artist. The penultimate room of the exhibition is devoted to the episode and it proves, if proof is still needed, that Munch’s interior conclusions fed upon outward events. Throughout this partial blindness he does not keep a self-pitying journal but he does keep a scientific record by covering his good eye with his hand and painting what he can see. At first he sees only bright, abstract colour patterns which he records in quick watercolours. Next soupy shadows that gradually come into focus as the weeks go by. At first a large blood clot shaped like a skull takes up about a third of his returning vision; eventually the skull shrinks into the shape of an ever-smaller bird. His eye specialist commented that this meticulous record would be invaluable for medical textbooks on the condition.
Munch made a good death aged 80, still experimenting and simplifying his work. Like Rembrandt, the late self-portraits are peculiarly redemptive and uplifting. Curators are crazy if they do not end any Munch exhibition with a run of them. Fortunately the curators of Edvard Munch: l’œil moderne are not frightened to finish on this cliché. The large crowd in the Pompidou became noticeably quieter in the last room as they faced up to death with Munch, their silence a testament to the universality of his vision.