Monday, February 11, 2013

Apologies to Munch: "The Groan"

Munch's Scream is one of our most familiar images, endlessly reproduced, parodied, reworked and commercialized, as well known as the Mona Lisa. For a few dozen examples, serious, humorous, witty, and vulgar, please go to  . Munch himself revisited the theme several times, expressing the emotional pain that he experienced in his personal life, and by extension, the angst of his times. Obviously I need to apologize to Munch for yet another reworking of his famous image; now I will explain, and try to justify, my doing so.

In the early part of 2012  I made a series of paintings on the theme "Quotes from the Masters."  The idea was to refer to famous works of art without copying them exactly, a requirement I fulfilled by reworking images first by Van Gogh and then by Tom Thomson but changing all the colours to their complementaries. I wrote about my "mutants" in this blog--please see my entries for March and November 2012. For me this was a new and challenging way to work, and to feel closer to the creators of the paintings on which I was focusing my attention.

Around this time, Ruth Payne, who runs the Ferry Building Gallery in West Vancouver, announced a themed exhibition to be mounted in 2013. The theme was "Hungry Ghosts: Living in the Age of Consumerism." The phrase "Hungry Ghosts" was evocative, but didn't mean much to me, and I dismissed the project from  my mind. A bit later, however, I heard Ruth explain that the hungry ghosts, deriving from Zen Buddhism, are mythical beings that are perpetually hungry but can never be satisfied. [Much later I was to learn that the ghosts are unable to swallow because their necks are too thin; if I'd had that information sooner my painting would have turned out rather differently . . . ] The germ of an idea lodged in my imagination, and became gradually more compelling. Could I perhaps "quote" from Munch and turn his screaming figure into a hungry ghost? I bought a book with a good reproduction of one version of The Scream  and decided to keep Munch's composition and colours much the same, while making my figure hugely obese and substantial instead of the original wispy waif. The painting evolved as I worked on it and reflected on the theme. My interpretation is a representation of an eating disorder, and by implication of addictions in general. Like the Zen ghosts, my overindulger is always hungry and never satisfied, regardless of how much she eats. The title that popped into my head one day as I was working refers to the bellyache that the person suffers from eating too much unsuitable food, and the psychic pain of addiction. Of course, it's also a play on Munch's title.

The Groan - acrylic - 24" x 20" - 2012
At first I kept the strong diagonal line of the fence rails or bridge parapet of Munch's painting, but as my figure increased in bulk she squeezed out the background. I had also wanted all along to include a reference to junk food. Timidly I introduced a cupcake or two . . . then more and more . . . until I had a whole incoming tide of cakes that threatened to surround the figure and overwhelm her. So the cakes come to represent the flood of unnecessary consumer stuff, edible and otherwise, that arouses our desires but fails to satisfy for long.

It will have become apparent that for me this had turned into a serious painting on a serious theme; but I have to acknowledge that it also belongs to the long line of jokes at the expense of The Scream. Some of the people who have looked at my painting have laughed--and then felt they had to apologize! A few said they found it disturbing. And a number responded by salivating over the cupcakes!

The Groan was accepted by the jury who adjudicated the submissions, and duly appeared in the "Hungry Ghosts" exhibition in January, along with an interesting and varied collection of two- and three-dimensional work. There is  a satisfaction in responding to a challenge like this one: as with the best art school assignments, they nudge me in directions that would never otherwise have occurred to me.