Munch as editorial cartoonist

The successful travelling exhibition The Modern Eye was opened at the Munch museum last week. The Norwegian version of the exhibition includes a little-known newspaper vignette based on The Scream.

Front page vignette for Social-Demokraten, 1898. Thorolf Holmboe (torch) and Edvard Munch (screaming face).

The New York crowds have hardly begun lining up to view Petter Olsen’s old Scream pastel at the Museum of Modern Art before a new version of Munch’s famous motif has emerged. The picture, a newspaper vignette created by Munch in 1898, is now on display as part of The Modern Eye – the international travelling exhibition recently opened at the Munch Museum.  The exhibition has already visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Schirn Künsthalle in Frankfurt and Tate Modern in London and has attracted more than one million visitors.

Curated by Angela Lampe and Clément Cheroux, The Modern Eye focuses on how Munch used and was inspired by modern technology in his art. Those who have seen the exhibitions at Pompidou, Schirn, and Tate will tell you that each venue has made its own clear imprint on the exhibition’s nature. In Oslo the exhibition is based on the museum’s own collection; for example, the museum’s version of The Scream has been incorporated into the exhibition. The local curator, Lars Toft-Eriksen, has adapted and developed Lampe and Cheroux’s concept. Kunstkritikk had a brief chat with him after the official exhibition opening.

There are a lot of rumours about you having found a new version of The Scream; what’s the real story?

Well, «new» may be overstating it. What we are showing at the exhibition is a vignette that Munch created for the newspaper Social-Demokraten in 1898 – a lithographic drawing created especially for the newspaper. Like most front pages in history this was not included in the annals of art history. In the 1970s Pål Hougen rediscovered the front page and wrote a short piece about it for Arbeiderbladet. This prompted a discussion about whether Munch was actually behind this «product of the human spirit», and the experts of the time arrived at a consensus stating that yes, Munch had dabbled in the art of editorial cartoons – he had created art for newspapers.

How did Munch come to draw for Social-Demokraten?

Then as now, acquaintances and networks played an important part. When Hans Jæger joined the editors of Social-Demokraten in the spring of 1898 he had the idea that the newspaper needed a new, catchy front-page vignette and hired Thorolf Holmboe and Munch to do the job. The motif consists of a clenched workman’s fist brandishing the torch of revolution, all drawn by Holmboe. Munch’s small screaming face emerges from the smoke of the torch. However, this new design was not a success. The editors thought it was all a bit much and decided to use it only this once.

Front page vignette for Social-Demokraten, 1898. Thorolf Holmboe (torch) and Edvard Munch (screaming face).

Munch has been regarded as a relatively apolitical artist. But this suggests that he was politically active?  

Well, possibly. At least it is interesting to see how Munch transforms his allegorical motif into an emblematic or iconic image intended to symbolise the working class struggle. Of course, we can always discuss whether this transformation was successful.

How does this newspaper drawing tie in with the exhibition theme?

One of the interesting things in this context is how Munch prefigures the modern discussion about originals and copies. Having created the first lithograph of The Scream in 1895 he had it printed in La Revue Blanche as early as November-December of that same year.  It was reproduced by means of photolithography, a relatively new technology for mass-media reproduction of images. Via Stanisław Przybyszewski he also had The Scream reproduced as a photolithograph in the Czech magazine Moderni Revue in 1897. Munch was, then, very much aware of the latest technological means of reproduction and how they could be used for mass communication. All this reached its acme in 1898 when he let the motif form part of this vignette for the Sosial-Demokraten.

The Modern Eye is about how Munch uses modern technology to explore new visual realms; how he relates to modern forms of technology such as photography, film, and lithography. From 1798 onwards lithography was used to reproduce images in newspapers and magazines, which made it the most important medium of visual representation until the 1870s, at which point photolithography took over – and this was the method of reproduction Munch used to have the Scream motif reach a wider audience. It is interesting to see how Munch simplifies the motif to a pared-back, emblematic form; a form which is probably as well known today as the painting. In this context, it is tempting to think of Munch as a brand builder.