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Edvard Munch, Gråtende kvinne, 1907-1909, Oil painting, 110,5 x 99 cm, Munch-museet, Oslo, Norvège
Addictive … detail of Damien Hirst’s Methoxyverapamil (1991). Photograph: Reuters

So what does Edvard Munch’s  and Damien Hirst’s work have in common? Currently the Tate Modern is showing two major retrospectives of the two artists, one floor above the other – with a hundred year between them (Munch was born in 1863, and Hirst in 1965). Both turn of the century artists – Munch (20th century) and Hirst (21st century) have become iconic artists of their times. Having seen both shows one after the other the superposition of the two became interesting to query. What is it that they as artists catalyse of their time? And, are there communalities to be found?

Both artists are indeed solipsistic; preoccupied with morbidity and death; compulsive as they replicate certain motives over and over again, like Munch’s Weeping Woman 1907-1909 or Hirst’s series of  Spot Paintings.

Munch’s world feels introvert and one can ask if to some extent they work as a self-healing agents? In Munch’s time the Spanish flu, tuberculosis and other illnesses ravaged, and the experience of this is exemplified in The Sick Child 1907. Munch’s expressionist style typically coincides with a time of painful existentialist questions as well as the drive for liberation of the self.

One hundred years later, Hirst’s medicine cabinets filled with pills in e.g. in Lullaby, the Seasons 2002, fills me with a sense of anaesthesia, and yet so adequately exemplifies our era of blatant consumption of pharmaceuticals. The slickness and manufactured gleam of Hirst’s work is in deed spectacular and renders us viewers as voyeurs too. And what does that say about our current times?

The funny thing about aesthetics is that one can like or dislike. Yet, taste is arbitrary, and aesthetics is much more than a matter of taste – it is a system for perception that in many ways encapsulates our time like a pulse or a litmus test. So whether one likes or dislikes, both these artists are undeniably iconic of their times.

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