The struggling artist film is a cliché and Van Gogh its patron saint, as though whether the film happens to be about Van Gogh or not his presence hangs over the ‘genre’. Any other artist misunderstood and penniless is like the great Dutchman. Talking of the artist, in relation to ‘the Cult of the Disintegrated Personality’, John Berger saw him generally presented as “a kind of problem-child-cum-gangster”, as he questioned the artist’s conventional presentation. Berger, in Steve Jacobs’ words, sees “that the artist of genius must be a wild outsider”, and Jacobs adds that Berger’s criticism can be applied to most artistic biopics. (Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts) Peter Watkins’s 1974 film Edvard Munch however could be called Scenes from a Painter’s Life, as if echoing Ingmar Bergman’s anatomy of marital discord released around the same time: Scenes from a Marriage. It finds form and content out of escaping the ready biopic approach. Occasionally of course films wonderfully deviate from this expectation, and The Quince Tree Sun and La belle noiseuse were both made in the early nineties and seemed like deliberate reactions to the biopic generally and Van Gogh in particular, coming shortly after the centenary of Van Gogh’s death and three fine films about the artist’s life: Van Gogh, Vincent, and Vincent and Theo. Both Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun and Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse are process films, focusing on the one painting as they expand time into the concentrated work of the artist, single-minded and determined. They remove the clichés and expectations by putting at the centre of the artist’s life what makes him an artist. This is not the drinking and the womanizing, the time spent in pubs and cafes, the arguments and disputes with family and artistic peers, critics and curators, but the putting of paint on canvas.
By this reckoning Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch should be just another biopic as the director avoids none of the conventions of the artist film we mention above: it is almost all about Munch’s struggle. And yet it is a great film, one of the most majestic on the artist’s life and work. While Erice and Rivette might have been avoiding the artist’s existence, this of course didn’t mean the Van Gogh films weren’t all significant examinations by important directors: Paul Cox, Robert Altman and Maurice Pialat. What matters is not whether one focuses on the life or concentrates on the paintings, but to try and find a way into the artist’s existence that captures the singular whilst acknowledging the general. The artist isn’t the isolated genius, per se, but a contrary force in the world of generally conservative perception and behaviour. What the filmmaker needs to do is acknowledge that sense of isolation by illustrating specifically how it functions contrary to perceptual norms. Erice and Rivette did so by showing the slow process that indicates art rather than craft: that it isn’t the practical issue of getting a job of work done, but showing how the art works passes through the subjectivity of the person creating it. In the Van Gogh films and Edvard Munch, much of this subjective struggle is shown through human interaction, through the messy intricacies of social relations on sensitive, tortuous and torturous souls. None of the filmmakers simply utilise the struggle for easy narratively tragic ends, but instead ask questions about the nature of aesthetic purpose. The artist thus isn’t utilised for his marginality but for his phenomenology: for his perceptual acuteness in the face of perceptual commonplaces.
Watkins is a director famous for historical contextualisation and anachronistic recreation. In Culloden and La Commune he takes events from history and films them in a cinema verite style. At the beginning of Edvard Munch he fills in both the social context of Oslo (then Kristiana) in the late nineteenth century, and the specifics of Munch’s family. Watkins’ voice-over details the long hours the poor would work, the employment of minors, and the low pay both adults and children would receive. The voice-over also informs us of the ill-health in the family, with Munch’s mother dying when he was ten, and Munch’s own appalling illness when he was a boy. The film illustrates in flashback Munch almost dying of consumption as he coughs up blood. Here is a film very much interested in the life but that also details it in a manner containing far more variables than the clichéd approach to artistic biopic. If La belle noiseuse and The Quince Tree Sun are great process films that avoid the facile through all but ignoring the life and concentrating on the painting to hand, Watkins’ film, like the three Van Gogh centenary works, offers enough dimensions to the life so that it falls not into cliché but expands into nothing less than both a personal and environmental enquiry.
By concentrating on the ill-health of the family and the ill-use of Oslo’s poor (with many of the young women becoming prostitutes that the state tolerates because bourgeois men have their needs), Watkins asks not how genius functions, but instead how original perception manifests itself. Edvard Munch sets the scene as biographical mise-en-scene: Watkins shows us how an event comes into being, where in this instance the ‘event’ is Munch. This isn’t so much cause and effect but more an effect and its causes, an important distinction to make if the film is to escape from the force of generic cliché. In cause and effect one thing inevitably leads to another, with the oppressive father leading to the rebellious son; the bourgeois upbringing means the son will take up radical politics and so on. Edvard Munch doesn’t make this assumption and finds instead a grid-like form to explore the circumstances that created the Norwegian artist, often flashing back to key moments in his childhood, digressively offering information about Oslo prostitution, laterally leaping from one person’s relationship with one woman, to another person’s relationship with someone else. In such a format even the idea of flashback loses the strength of its coordinates: the present isn’t strongly enough established to pass for a place from which other scenes are flashbacking from. In one of numerous scenes where we see Munch sitting in a cafe with other Oslo bohemians, the voice-over tells us what will happen to them in the near future: we are told of their burgeoning ill-health, alcoholism, madness and death. This is audio flashforward to put alongside the scenes of visual flashback, but to use such terms we’re in danger of simplifying the mode of enquiry the director adopts.
By instead utilising the image of the grid, we can see that Watkins lays out the Munchian as biographical complexity, just as La belle noiseuse and The Quince Tree Sun laid out the artist’s aesthetic means. In The Quince Tree Sun the film’s central character prepares his canvas, decides on what he will concentrate on as he determines to paint the quince tree of the title in his backyard. In La belle noiseuse, Frenhofer goes into the studio with his model and much time is taken up with the preparatory work involved. The preparatory dimension to Edvard Munch is very different but equally diligent: Watkins prepares the way for us to understand Munch. However, this is not as some inner enigma manifested in outer eccentricities, but as a singular figure out of complex but hardly mysterious elements. How does one find the means by which to show a great artist as complex without arriving at the mystifying; how to say that the artist is of course singular but that this needn’t at all make him enigmatic?
If the making of Munch as an artist consists in a consumptive family on the one hand and a wretchedly poor and overworked working class on the other, then the film also points up Munch’s infatuation with a married woman in Oslo society, Fru Heiberg. She might be only several years older than the artist, but she is much wiser than he is on the pragmatics of feeling, and the film suggests that this ostensible immaturity on the artist’s part was also vital to his capacity for co-feeling. It may have led to obsessive behaviour that indicates immaturity as he jealously follows her around the city, but he also becomes acutely aware of the dissolution of one person into another that he would then go on brilliantly to capture in his paintings. Think of the ‘Kiss’ that dissolves the couple into one mass, and it brings to mind a Fitzgerald comment that sums up well the power the woman has over Munch and how it opens up a space within him. This is a space indicating that there is no clear dividing line between one person and another, and that intense feelings of love make this all the clearer. “He stared morosely at the fire. Then a strange thing happened. She turned to him and smiled, and as he saw her smile every rag of anger and hurt vanity dropped from him – as though his very moods were but the outer ripples of her own, as though emotion rose no longer in his breast unless she saw fit to pull an omnipotent controlling thread.” (The Beautiful and Damned)
Munch is presented as an artist without a clear sense of self, but where many a biopic might choose to show this as merely the consequence of a man struggling to find his place in the world, Watkins’ film emphasizes that this is not an arced tale about the portrait of an artist as a young man becoming a mature one, but of the artist in a constant state of struggle with selfhood. This has nothing to do with lack of confidence but instead ontological insecurity: the awareness one may have of knowing that an ego is an artificial thing, propped up by suspect social codes, false lines of demarcation and material accoutrements that hardly belong to one’s self by virtue of owning them. An artist might mature in defiance of these elements, by refusing sexual mores and material comforts, but is this to arrive at a false form of confidence nevertheless: as if the successful artist unlike the traditional bourgeois enters by the servant’s entrance rather than the main door, but still becomes master of the house? The ontologically insecure always feel as if they are entering by the servant’s quarters because they know that the gap between themselves and anybody else is non-existent and artificially manufactured. There is no place of ontological security from which they can comfortably define themselves. The danger of the struggling artist film is that the struggle is with society, when the problem is far more frequently a perceptual relationship with the world, with society simply a conservative force keeping the creative individual confined rather than free. If the film only shows the artist liberated from society, has it shown very much of the actual freedom generated perceptually in the art itself?
In a documentary on Munch Carole Guberman quotes August “Strindberg’s claim that the human spirit had awoken from its solitude and found itself without power, because it had lost touch with the transcendental and I think it is this, feeling,” Guberman says, “of isolation and powerlessness that Munch portrays in his work.” However, while Watkins may or not be sympathetic to such metaphysical claims, by laying the film out socio-politically, and suggesting a state beyond these limitations, Watkins refuses to allow society a passively significant role in the film, and instead shows its presence as a series of variables in the artist’s life. Munch cannot escape his upbringing, his bourgeois position, his awareness of fatal illness; all he can do is transform them into a new mode of perception. The film proposes that Munch will never become established, because that is not the film’s purpose, and that is why we claim that whether the film focuses on the life or the art, the problem doesn’t reside there: it rests on whether or not the film wants to reflect the aesthetically new or settle for the narratively old. Each shot in the film contributes not to the life of the artist but the artist’s vision. The affair with Fru Heiberg is a monumental event in his living existence, but it is also the sort of perception that can lead to the creation of the ‘Kiss’ and ‘Love and Pain’. Munch left 1,000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 4,500 drawings and watercolours, and six sculptures to the city of Oslo. Munch died at 80 and never married. It was a huge body of work contained within the body of a man, but the latter contains within it the opportunity for the former, so that every experience becomes sublimated into aesthetic possibility.
Thus if a film accepts that it is a biopic (which in the strictest sense is exactly what Edvard Munch happens to be), at the same time it is also a biopic of an artist, which shouldn’t be similar to that of a footballer, a pop singer or a composer. If Watkins’s film is a masterpiece it resides in the full exploration of an artist’s life with the artist and the life constantly in conjunction but with the former taking precedence. Is this partly why the film throws us into Munch’s existence rather than chronologically starting with his childhood, as if to concentrate on those early years before the artist came into being, showing the non-artistic existence, would be superfluous because it could have been anybody’s? Of course one might claim that these are the artist’s formative experiences, but they are in many instances no different from those of the other children in the Munch family, none of whom became great artists. No, what matters is to find the entry point that will allow the film to explore the aesthetic without idling on the life.
This returns us to the notion of the event, and numerous Watkins films have been interested in the delineating of a moment in time, whether it happens to be Culloden, which examines the logistical and emotional aspects of the battle between the Sots and the English in 1746, The War Game, about what happens during a nuclear strike, or La Commune, focusing on the Paris Commune of 1871, Watkins wants to show how an event comes into being. What is unusual about Edvard Munch is that it utilises a similar approach to the other films; but where they concentrate on an impersonal event, Edvard Munch attends to a personal one. Now we’re using the term event here not too unlike the philosopher Alain Badiou who talks of the event as a new possibility in art, love, science and politics. “The truth creates the understanding of the process of truth and the subject is this sort of understanding. So, the truth needs nothing other than itself. It’s very important. The truth is not a question of knowledge; it is the defection of knowledge. This is the reason why people who defend knowledge are against events…” (Infinite Thought) But perhaps we do so to ally it to Lyotard’s notion of the adjectival as singularity. “…But one never steps twice into the same river, quite simply because there is no river, that is what is said by the madman, lover of singularities, be his name Proust, Sterne, Pascal, Nietzsche, Joyce, a madman determined to judge a given swim as unexchangeable for any other, in spite of its generic name, a madman ready to want a proper name…” (Libidinal Economy)
If a film like The Commune and a painting such as ‘The Kiss’ fulfil Badiou’s idea of the event, as a noun, since we can reduce them to a moment, however extended, would it be better to describe Munch as an adjective more than an event? That his existence allowed for the Munchian? We don’t say of May 68, the massacre of Peterloo, the march to Washington by a million blacks to hear Martin Luther King that it was ‘68ish’, Peterlooian, or Washingtonian, but we do talk of the Klimtian, the Picassoesque, the Kandynskian. The subject as noun generates the adjective as original being. What is so interesting about Watkins’ film is that he does work with the artist as an event without at all denying his adjectival dimension. The voice-over is as pragmatic and factually precise as in the other films, the impoverished workers interviewed at the beginning here are presented no differently than those who would have been involved in the Paris Commune around the same time. They are not there to talk about Munch, but about themselves. They aren’t figures propping up the artist’s reputation; they are individuals discussing their own life situation. This gives to the work a focus on the artist without excluding the environment out of which he comes. By talking to people who have no direct connection with Munch as a man, but who wouldn’t have been irrelevant to his artistic vision, Watkins gets closer to the work as he risks getting further away from the figure. It allows for an interesting and unusual combination of the artist as event. Munch is a force of perception combining the autobiographical, the emotionally personal, the social and the national to produce a body of work that functions as an event in art history.
The director manages to acknowledge the artist’s genius by insisting that genius belongs to the world more than the self, and the great artist turns this belonging into an act of immense self-absorption: he or she absorbs the world into the self. They aren’t self-absorbed in the narrow sense of only possessing an interest in themselves, but absorb into the self as many aspects of the world as one can countenance. The love affair with Heiberg is of course personally devastating to Edvard, but what matters is how one can intensify the affect for creative ends. As Munch once said: “If what you want to paint is the emotive mood in all its strength…then you must not sit and stare at everything and depict it exactly as one sees it. You must paint the way it must be, exactly the way it appeared when you responded emotionally to the motif.” The intensity of personal feeling doesn’t become self absorbent; it absorbs other things and puts into objects and other subjects the self even to the point of attenuation. “They will not get it into their heads that these paintings were created in all seriousness and in suffering, that they are products of sleepless nights, that they have cost me blood and weakened my nerves.” This is more self-destruction than self-absorption, but a damage done to the self for the work.
The artist is in this sense an event if we see the event as a metonymising mood. When we talk of May 68 or 9/11, we do not just mean the month of May when students revolted, or a day in the September when the twin towers fell. The metonymic mood would also incorporate what it stands for: May 68 as the hopes for a new mode of society; 9/11 as a clash of civilizations. This is equally true of the major artist: they symptomize much more than their own existence, even their own art. A minor artist is little more than the sum total of their creativity. One needn’t be dismissive of this quality; one merely needs to note that such an artist would seem to lack the symptomatic possibilities that allow us to mention their name and where a world far beyond the specifics of their work comes to mind. If Munch, Hamsun and Ibsen are for example amongst the greatest of Norwegian artists, it is because they represent the Nordic sensibility in various manifestations, and expand it beyond national borders to capture solitude, angst and the need for freedom from domestic limitations. Their work functions as metonymic event.
One of the problems with the narrowly biographical approach to artists in film is that it aggrandizes the artist but to the detriment of understanding the wider aesthetic importance. Watkins insists that Munch is an artist of immense import not because of some innate genius, but because he seemed the figure that most completely contained and reflected the environment out of which he came. As the voice-over offers numerous names that will probably be unfamiliar to the average viewer, Watkins does so for some of the same reasons he provides personal accounts of the poor. The artists and writers who frequent cafe culture in the capital are all part of the milieu, and Munch doesn’t at all present them as mediocrities around Edvard, but as strong personalities who probably influenced Munch more than the other way round. In many of these sequences Munch says nothing at all, and if we were to judge the fame of the artists and writers based on the mise-en-scene, Munch would be just another person in the cafe, impressionable and gauche. He doesn’t become any the more assertive as the film continues; his purpose in Watkins’ work is to broaden his sensibility, not to announce his presence. When his shows are dismissed by the critics, the scenes aren’t dramatised; they are contextualized, as if the director is saying this is what happens to art every day, more than that this is a misunderstood genius. By setting up the film based on the broadest possible permutations of a given milieu, the temptation to fall into the great artist undermined proves secondary to the societal restrictions that will leave many a creative person unfairly mocked.
Watkins nevertheless constantly gives texture to the centrality of Munch’s perceptions by finding visual correlatives in the cinematography, and by often lingering over the paintings themselves. When Munch paints one work he creates an image that is blurred and unspecific. The painting is badly received critically and the film dwells on the painting, as if to see a burgeoning style within a critical bludgeoning. It is viewed as an awe-inspiring work less for its artistic brilliance than for the fact that singular art survives general maulings. Indeed, the film admits that not long afterwards Munch did retreat from the adventurousness of this approach, offering art works that put back some of the specifics the painting deliberately left out. Again, what we have is not the resilient artist strong-willed and determined; more the weak man but with an immense perceptual force that won’t finally allow him to paint in a more conventional way. The man is weak but the art is willing. He of course returns to this original style.
But Edvard Munch also wants to be the biopic of an artist. A film about a sports star or a rock star would if it wanted to capture the specific feel of the givens of that life demand a different filmic approach, and this hyperbolic aesthetic is very much present in Watkins’ films about a pop star, Privilege, made in 1967. Here he wanted to make a film that would be all extroversion: “When we find someone who will divert and entertain us, we turn him into a fantastic sort of pop hero. But what about the entertainers themselves? They’re monsters created by the mass media. A lot of the pop groups today are their own victims.” (Roger Ebert Interviews) We don’t expect from the sports star or the rock star the contemplative, just as we don’t demand from the artistic biopic the high octane. True, Peter Watkins’ fellow English contemporary Ken Russell was doing exactly this in the mid-seventies: with Savage Messiah and Mahler not that different from his rock opera Tommy, with all the films absorbed into Russell’s exuberant style. However, this was a deliberately contrary approach with the director playing up his own enfant terrible status and imposing it on the films he was making at the time. Russell chose to impose a mid seventies glam-rock approach to fame on earlier periods to play up the anachronistic. If Tommy remains the most memorable film Russell made during this period it lay nevertheless in the aesthetic meeting the subject, with Roger Daltrey and Elton John cast in semi-fictional roles but basically playing themselves. The film was high on its own energy, and it is fair to expect from a rock film some of this kinetic social pinball that leaves the rock star a ball pinging around inside the social machine. (The film’s key song is ‘Pinball Wizard’) From a sports film we might instead want the importance of the outcome: whether our hero will win fin the fight, get the gold medal, or defeat the favourites. If the rock film demands the kinetic and the sports film the outcome (no matter masterful exceptions like Raging Bull), the artistic film demands instead what we might call the visual correlative.
How can a director make a film about an artist who works in shapes and colours without recognizing this dimension and echoing it in their own work? One might not care for Minnelli’s Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life or Peter Greenaway’s film on Rembrandt, Nightwatching, but they at least resemble visually the work of the artist. Edvard Munch achieves the visual correlative not quite by mimicking the colours and shapes, but above all else by achieving a visual melancholy. The film seems suffused by a light that captures the sense of a depressive stupor. Often using long lenses that allows Watkins to suggest a distance that he would then close by zooming in on a face, while keeping what surrounds it in a blur, the film indicates both the fly on the wall dimension indicative of documentary, but also finds in this form an intimate softness evident in some of Robert Altman’s films like McCabe and Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, and also in Bo (Elvira Madigan) Widerberg’s work – whose Man on the Roof Watkins’ cameraman here also shot. Watkins doesn’t try and mimic Munch’s art visually, which would probably have led to kitsch, but finds an equivalent look that could capture the eye of Munch in cinematic form. It is as if Watkins wondered not how he could film Munch’s art, but how Munch might have filmed what he saw with a camera. It is this aesthetically correlative leap that makes the work much more interesting on a visual level (let alone a narrative one) when compared with Greenaway’s Rembrandt film, perhaps even Godard’s Passion. Godard, like Greenaway with Rembrandt, wanted to film the paintings of Valasquez, Goya and Delacroix as acts of mannerist self-consciousness, while Watkins here instead wants to film as though trying to understand Munch’s consciousness.
The visual form thus matches the nature of the content as Watkins refuses to allow the images to become familiar to us as Munchian, but wonders what it might be like to film as though with the sensitivity of the Norwegian artist. Deliberately casting Norwegians who actively disliked Munch’s work, according to Wikipedia, Watkins offers a hostile environment contained by acute sensitivity. The combination of Watkins’ voice-over, the long moments where the film dwells on Munch’s paintings, and the aesthetically correlative effect that seeks not to imitate but visually emphasise, gives to the film a singularity to match that of the artist. It manages to be a work that hints at the artist as event, whilst also fully acknowledging the Munchian as an adjective. Like Bergman’s aforementioned Scenes from a Marriage, made also for Swedish television, it is a cinematic masterpiece made for the small screen but filmed with the largest of canvases in mind.