Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye


Some theoretical problems from the presence of repeating motifs in art.

One of the first things that the Tate highlights about Edvard Munch's work is the way he returned to certain images, often decades apart. Examples of this practice can be seen hung on opposing walls of the gallery, including Vampire (1893) and the later Vampire in the Forest (1916-1918).

For Nicholas Cullinan, the curator of the exhibition, Vampire in the Forest constitutes the reworking of a motif. The resulting pictures differ in terms of lighting, colour, setting, and so on. This is an intuitive way of looking at artworks that involve repetition, so natural that it feels unfair to insist on looking at them in another way. Unfortunately, Gilles Deleuze insists we do exactly that.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with the way we tend to group and categorize objects into sets. This is perhaps partly instinctive and partly the result of our education which asks us to descern differences between objects. For Deleuze, this type of difference is illusory.

Deleuze's insistence on rethinking difference extends to art. Deleuze writes:

The repetition of a work of art is like a singularity without concept, and it is not by chance that a poem must be learned by heart. (2005:2)

This seems to be a statement against thinking of artworks as manifestations of Platonic ideals. There is no ideal Vampire which Munch is striving to produce through iteration. Instead, each Vampire stands on its own. Furthermore, the relations between each Vampire are the same as those between a Vampire and any of Munch's other paintings.

It might be easier to see Deleuze's point if we were to imagine a Neoplatonic art critic insisting that all paintings of circles are the same ideal circle. This would be a stretch, even if we limited it to circles painted by a particular artist, or only those entitled "Circle".

How then do we explain the presence of the bloodsucking redhead across the Vampire paintings? One potential explanation involves thinking of the motif as a kind of attractor, but with the caution that we try and avoid lapsing into mysticism.

When faced with an empty canvass, Munch could have painted it in a myriad of ways. He ended up painting the redhead. He likes that redhead. Painting her is a habit. It is here where the second part of Deleuze's statement, the notion of "learning by heart," becomes important. When faced with a field of infinite possibilities, the result will be determined by the presence of attractors and how we react to them.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is at the Tate Modern and ends on the 14th of October 2012.

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