Medusa, Madonna and Munch’s art

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Medusa, Madonna and Munch’s art

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“Battle of the Sexes” would have been a more straightforward title for the exhibition “Man and Woman,” which kicked off on Aug. 11.
More than 30,000 viewers have viewed the exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art inside Deoksu Palace, which displays 98 lithographs by two leading European artists of the late 19th century: Felicien Rops (1833-1898) and Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Most of the works at the exhibit have women as models or seem to focus on women, but the artists are men. The result is a window to the male perspective of women in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
“It is remarkable that more people started recognizing Rops thanks to the joint exhibition with works by Munch, who is far more renowned in Korea,” said Park Mi-hwa, assistant curator at the museum. The only thing the two artists’ works have in common is their motif ― the femme fatale. Both of them regarded women as seducers and destroyers of men.
Most of the 61 works by the Belgian-born artist Felicien Rops are social satires. During the artist’s life, Europe was rapidly modernizing and women’s positions were changing, things that are reflected in his paintings, which seem filled with symbols of evil. Rops, who was both a cartoonist and engraving artist, derided society as being dominated by harlotry and insanity. Modernization and emancipation movements established a new concept of women as strong and active characters. Yet female sexuality was considered a threat to men and society.
One of Rops’ better-known prints, “Pornocrates (Pornocracy, 1896)” depicts a half-naked woman being led by a pig on a leash. Surrounded by three cherubs, the woman is wearing a fashionable black hat, gloves and long stockings with showy flower prints. The woman is naked where she should be covered, and vice versa. The pig symbolizes the woman’s sexual desire and the angels are concerned only about themselves, according to Jean-Pierre Babut Du Mares, an expert on Felicien Rops.
Rops also mocks his own work by contrasting introverted and extroverted themes. In the 1882 work, “Les Sataniques-Satan semant L’ivraie” (Satans-the Sowing Satan), the seeds that Satan is shown sowing over the world are actually women.
The 37 prints by Edvard Munch give viewers the impression that Munch’s misery inspired him to create great works of art. His mother died when he was five; his sister passed away two years later. The loss of his sister affected the artist throughout his life and was a major motif in his works, including “Sick Child” (1896). There are two versions, one in black-and-white, the other in color. The two pieces give markedly different impressions of a grieving sick child.
Munch’s misery, it seems, also stemmed from his history of bad relationships. A string of failures in love led him to fear women, who he saw as seducers and medusas. His “Madonna” series (1895-1902) is typical of his style ― repeated lines and mysterious facial expressions. His “Madonna” is an attractive and sensual yet destructive character, gesturing seductively, while a skeletal child sits in the corner.
Munch broke away from the old academic style and created his work in loud colors and distorted forms, while Rops clung to traditional academic forms. Munch, however, was a true expressionist whose work is emotional. Rops’s work, in contrast, is entirely satirical.
Munch is noted for its oil paintings. Few people know he liked print works such as engraving and etching. Munch created more than 17,000 prints and about 1,200 oil paintings during his lifetime. This exhibition is the first time his prints have been displayed in Korea.
The assistant curator Park insists that this exhibition will not be hard to understand since the styles of the two artists are not very abstract. “A little bit of research and understanding of symbolism, diabolism and expressionism will help you understand the works of the two artists,” she added.


by Chang Sun-young

The exhibition runs until Oct. 22 at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, located in Deoksu Palace. The Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Tuesdays to Sundays and is closed on Mondays. The nearest subway station is City Hall, line No. 2, exit 12 or line No.1, exit 2. Admission is 1,000 won ($1.04) for the entrance of the palace and additional 4,000 won for the exhibition.
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