Edvard Munch: the Modern Eye - review

There’s more to angsty Munch than The Scream, writes Thomas Calvocoressi.

'The Scream' auctioned at Sotheby's. Photo: Getty Images

­Edvard Munch: the Modern Eye

Tate Modern, London SE1

There are few artists whose entire output is eclipsed by just one work or series of works – Leonardo, perhaps, with the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh with his Sunflowers – but even so most people could name a couple of other paintings by each. For Edvard Munch, though, it is always The Scream that is on everyone’s lips and the rest of his oeuvre remains obscure to mainstream audiences. This show neatly bypasses that image – and all its cultural baggage – by concentrating on Munch the modernist. Much of what’s on display was produced after 1908, the year he had a nervous breakdown and left Paris for a spell in a Danish psychiatric clinic (before returning to Norway in 1909), rather than from the fin de siècle, symbolist era of The Scream. And it is a show full of surprises.

Tate has arranged the rooms thematically and although Munch’s style seems at first more naturalistic, less modernist than some of his contemporaries’, what each of these groupings emphasises is the singularity of his vision. There is Nordic angst here, a darkness often just below the surface in depictions of a country where the sun barely sets in summer. It is beautifully unsettling. But Munch also has a great eye for the comic and the absurd – there is something wonderfully cartoon-like about the figures in many of his paintings, their gazes “looking to camera”, as in the eerie Red Virginia Creeper (1898-1900).

One early room, “Reworkings”, shows how Munch reused certain images throughout his career. Many artists would create multiples for commercial purposes and this was certainly Munch’s practice but there is also a more obsessive, psychoanalytic impetus, some­thing that reaches a crescendo in the later room “Compulsion” with his multiple paintings of a naked Weeping Woman – it’s as if the image is scalded in his memory. He won’t let a theme or motif go, continually developing it, worrying at it. In The Girls on the Bridge (1902), six girls bunch
together, a circular cluster of bright colour whirling in excited symmetry; in the 1927 rendering, three girls stand on the bridge, looking over it pensively, more disconnected. Vampire (1893), with its darkened interior, illuminated figures and flowing, red hair is firmly in the era of art nouveau; while in the 1916-18 version, Munch has transposed the couple to a forest with vivid colour and foliage, the woman now bloated to monstrous proportions.

In another room, “Optical Space”, with more than a nod to the new cinema of the time, Munch plays with exaggerated perspectives and the positioning of figures within his frames to often sinister effect. The hollow-eyed faces of the foreground figures in Workers on Their Way Home (1913-14) seem to challenge us, blocking our way. In Murder on the Road (1919), the morbid undertones in Munch’s rural Norway explode to the surface: a dark-clothed body lies in the road and a figure we presume to be the killer runs towards us, almost leaping out of the frame, his blank but malevolent face like something from a child’s cautionary tale.

The final room, entitled “Unflinching Gaze”, is hung with Munch’s late-period self-portraits; it’s here that elements from his other work collide most powerfully as we witness the effects of illness and alcoholism on the once handsome artist. The Night Wanderer (1923-24) is a depiction of insomnia and despair. In With Bottles, Munch seems to be both sending up his alcoholism and confessing it. In a last, haunting memento mori, Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), Munch stands face on, diminished, looking more geriatric than someone able to paint the picture. But there’s something defiant and resolved in his pose, as if he’s ready to make that final step to the deathbed beside him.

The exhibition runs until 14 October