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Reviewed by:
  • Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness by Mieke Bal
  • Jakob Lothe
Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness. Curated by Mieke Bal, with assistant curator Ute Kuhlerman. Munch Museum, Oslo. April 4, 2017.

The exhibition Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness curated by Mieke Bal at the Munch Museum demanded more than a single visit. Indeed, it proved such compelling viewing that I returned to see it a second time. By juxtaposing the work of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and French novelist Gustave Flaubert, Bal invited fresh understandings of the former’s visual art and the latter’s verbal art—not by making either of them less original, but by showing how, in using alternative forms of artistic expression, both explored different aspects of the human experience of loneliness in the modern era. The relevance, urgency, and authenticity of these explorations in the exhibition strongly suggested that, in one important sense at least, this era is still ongoing.

The exhibition’s dual focus on the visual and the verbal revealed how strongly visual Flaubert’s writing is in Madame Bovary, thus making me more appreciative of the thematic effects of verbal visualization; it also revealed how remarkably readable Munch’s visual art is. The exhibition convinced me that the narrative elements of Munch’s visual art bear a significant relation to the distinctive aspects of Flaubert’s verbal narrative, in fact. Of course, when I write “Flaubert” here, I am actually referring to Bal’s video installations from Madame B. While studying Munch’s art I was also looking at installations in which actors presented or performed different phases of the lives of Emma and her husband Charles, the protagonists in Flaubert’s novel. The performativity of the act of looking was striking in several of the video scenes and was created in large part by Bal’s innovative use of perspective and variations of spatial and temporal distance. As modulations of perspective and distance are constituent elements of Munch’s visual art as well as of Flaubert’s verbal art, Bal’s filmic art added a third dimension to the exhibition’s presentations of loneliness. This third dimension increased the relevance of the exhibition for those visitors who perhaps were not primarily interested in Munch or Flaubert, but rather in art forms like film and theatre.

These presentations primarily relied upon and were achieved through a combination of fictions, figures, and creations. Despite prominently featuring the names Edvard and Emma in the title, Bal was not interested in Munch’s and Flaubert’s biographies; instead, she staged a series of encounters between Munch’s figure, “Edvard,” and Flaubert’s creation, “Emma.” In the thoughtful book published to accompany the exhibition, Emma & Edvard Looking Sideways: Loneliness and the Cinematic, Bal renders Munch’s Edvard as a character-narrator who becomes a kind of protagonist of his own self-presentations; she also renders him as a “focalizer”—that is, as the possessor and manipulator of the perspective through which we, as viewers, could gain access to the vision of the world observable in the visual images. Created and presented verbally in a way that Munch’s Edvard is not, Flaubert’s Emma is the focalizer-character of a work of fiction. There was a strong sense that both of these fictional figures represented, or enabled Munch and Flaubert to present, a pervasive loneliness characterized by a strong tendency to look at the world sideways, failing to engage in visual or verbal dialogue with others.

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Emma & Edvard: Love in the Time of Loneliness, curated by Mieke Bal, at the Munch Museum, Oslo. (Photo: Courtesy of the Munch Museum.)

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Edvard Munch, The Voice / Summer Night (1896; Woll 394). (Courtesy of the Munch Museum, Oslo.)

Of the works presented in room 3 of the exhibition, which explored the theme “Fantasies,” I was particularly struck by the ways that Munch’s painting, The Voice / Summer Night (1896), was linked to a video installation that showed Charles and Emma seeing each other for the first time. The installation consisted of two screens...