Melancholia, Not Modernism

Edvard Munch may have yoked new technologies together but his leitmotifs were timeless

Michael Prodger

Edvard Munch died in 1944 and was painting to the end. His natural peers, however, seem to belong to an older generation, personified by Gauguin and Van Gogh, rather than Modernists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, who both died in the same year as he did. Although the pictures that made Munch the tutelary deity of psychologists were painted in the 1890s — The Scream, Puberty, The Kiss, The Vampire — fully three quarters of his output dates from after 1900.

Part of the reason for the misapprehension about his work is that although he lived through many of the great movements of the early 20th century — Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstraction — he remained apart from them. This was not due to geographical remoteness, since he spent long periods outside Norway in Berlin and Paris, but more to do with his own impulses and the fact that the painting of his contemporaries affected his work far less than other art forms, notably writing and photography. 

It is the aim of a major new exhibition at Tate Modern, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (June 28-October 14), to dispel the image of the painter as a relic of Romanticism stuck in his northern fastness, oblivious to the world around him and fixated instead on delineating his pained inner life. Despite his celebrity, reinforced last month when a pastel version of The Scream sold for £74 million, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, Munch is a rare beast on these shores. The 60 paintings and 50 of his photographs in the exhibition make an unprecedented gathering here and are designed to show just how engaged Munch was with his times and what was happening around him.

This is a bit of curatorial blue-sky thinking since Munch himself gainsaid the notion of modernity and defined his art as “really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life”. It was an idea he stated more than once and there is no escaping the fact that his most successful paintings are those that deal with the interior rather than the exterior world; he was, after all, an almost exact contemporary of Freud. Where this exhibition does work is in showing how Munch yoked new technologies such as photography and film to his timeless themes.

Munch was, for example, a keen amateur photographer and a very concentrated one. His photographs fall into only three categories: self-portraits, pictures of his paintings, and images of places that had particular emotional importance to him. Photography, in other words, was autobiography. Many of his self-portrait photographs show him in profile with his long nose and pouting lips, an aspect very difficult for a painter to capture using mirrors. Rather than using the pictures as a basis for paintings he used them instead of, as part of a larger fascination with self-portraiture (between 1900 and 1944 he painted himself 41 times), a multi-media composite that encompassed paintings, drawings, prints and photographs.

Some aspects of his paintings such as the raised viewpoints, arbitrary cropping and distortions directly replicate what emerged when his photographs were developed. They fed too into his interest in multiples. Munch revisited motifs time and time again: he painted six versions of The Sick Child, seven of The Girls on the Bridge, 12 of The Vampire. His revisitings were not copies but reworkings, partly for commercial reasons but largely because he needed to return to the memories or episodes that had prompted them to refine and intensify them until some sort of catharsis had been attained. Of The Sick Child, which was first painted six years after the death of his sister Sophie, Munch wrote that there was no other painter “who had lived through his motif until the last cry of agony” as he had with this image. Returning to it over and over again was a way of recovering memory and sensation.

Other visual quirks came from moving film, especially after he bought himself a cine-camera in 1927. Strong diagonals and figures advancing towards the viewer feature in many of his pictures (The Scream is the prime example) and are directly attributable to the accelerated perspective of characters walking towards the lens in movie films. He also painted a series of dramatic pictures recording a brawl he had with a fellow artist, Ludwig Karsten, showing the pair of them, bloodied and tumbling down a slope, that could be stills from a fight scene in a film. 

Meanwhile, external experience was also responsible for the suffocatingly closed rooms, stagey lighting and frozen poses that were another artistic trait (Puberty and Weeping Woman) and which grew out of his friendship with August Strindberg and the set designs he made in Berlin in the 1890s for productions of Ibsen’s Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. Dramatic real-life events such as a fire in a neighbouring house or a group of Communists being executed by firing squad in Finland also found their way into his  pictures.

Nevertheless, Munch’s conviction that “the angels of fear, sorrow and death stood by my side since the day I was born” was the real motive force of his art. He was not exaggerating: both his mother and sister died of TB, another sister went insane, his brother died shortly after his wedding, while Munch himself was confined to a clinic after a nervous breakdown, and his great but fraught love affair with the heiress Tulla Larsen culminated in the painter being shot in the hand.

“I try to dissect souls,” he wrote. The real importance of the modern age for him was not as a repository of fresh subjects but that it suggested new techniques through which to dissect his own soul and portray his “strange, noisome-terrible life”.

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