Edvard Munch looks harder at himself than any other artist. His unsparing paintings are simply transfixing, says Waldemar Januszczak
As a sustained display of cathartic self-absorption, I doubt the RA’s gathering of Munch self- portraits could be improved, unless it were by adding more self- portraits to the parade. Unbelievably, there are more. This selection includes 150 or so paintings, prints, drawings and photographs by Munch, of Munch, but plenty of others have been left behind in Oslo. However, the resulting stare- fest feels consistent rather than monotonous; inventive instead of repetitive. In case anyone needs to have it proved to them that the human condition is endlessly fascinating, here is that proof obsessively gathered by a man addicted to mirrors.
The story of art has, in the main, been a tale of growing narcissism on the part of artists. A medieval artist, say, would never have considered making artworks about himself. To be overinterested in yourself would have been understood as vanity: the devil’s work. It was Michelangelo who reversed these perceptions by putting his own face on the flayed skin being held up by St Bartholomew on the Sistine ceiling. From Michelangelo onwards, artists weren’t mere recorders of the story: they were the story. In our times, the rise of the celebrity newsreader or the career of Alastair Campbell might be seen as pertinent parallels.
Munch arrived on the stage in 1863, after Rembrandt, after Van Gogh, after Gauguin, and seems never to have imagined he might not be the perfect topic for his own art. The show comes to him as an 18-year-old, newly enrolled at the School of Drawing in Oslo (Kristiania, as it then was), yet already staring out at us from what seems to be an elevated position, as if he had somehow managed to get his reflection to stand on a box and look down on everyone else. He’s just a teenager. Pale face. Thin neck. Big jacket. Grey eyes. Melodramatic stare. Nowadays, this type of teenage mega-seriousness is the chosen look of lead singers in publicity shots. But because this is art, not pop, we are inclined to take Munch’s absurd pretensions more seriously. Rarely can an 18-year-old have feigned this much preternatural experience of the tortuous vicissitudes of life.
At the other end of the same room, aged 37, he shows himself as a naked Christ on the cross being mocked by the masses. How typical of Munch to develop this degree of cosmic pessimism about his existence half a life earlier than his actual experience warranted. Since he lived to be 80, he saddled himself from the beginning with an exceedingly problematic artistic future: if you start with black, how do you colour the deeper darknesses to come? Watching his art buckle and triumph, buckle and triumph, as it searches for something more productive to do in the realm of hypercharged Scandinavian bleakness than to heap more pessimism onto the pessimism, is this display’s excellent story line.
The first self-portraits are briefly naturalistic, but almost immediately he is a symbolist, distorting shapes, flattening colours, racking up the miserableness, making sure his art reflects what he feels and not what is actually out there. One of the many remarkable things about The Scream, represented here by a lovely and scary lithograph, is that it was painted in 1895, which seems shockingly early for such a crazily inventive modern icon. That he meant it to represent him is made clear by every other mark here: all the pain on display emanates from Munch.
Women do in fact enter the story line, forcefully and immediately, as they appear to constitute the chief reason for his perpetual disquiet. Much is made of the fact that Munch’s mother died when he was five, shortly after giving birth to her fifth child, and his sister a decade later. But he strikes you as one of those incorrigibly gloomy Scandinavians who needed no such deaths to spark sexual despair in him, and who, indeed, would have managed to feel lonely and cold surrounded by willing girls on a tropical island. Actually, he had an impressive list of lovers, stretching, by all accounts, to his 80th and final year. Most of them are recorded in his art as it seeks recurrently to position Munch in relation to his women.
Usually, he’s the victim. A series of Salomes inspired by his English lover, Eva, casts him specifically as the decapitated head of John the Baptist, brought to Salome on a plate. Elsewhere, in a gentler variation, his bodiless head is entangled in the big hair of his femme fatale and stares out, petrified. The scariest of his lovers, the flame-haired, skinny Tulla Larsen, obsessed him for nearly a decade. Their relationship ended with Munch shooting himself in the hand, a bloody climax to which his art keeps returning for increasingly theatrical readings, notably in a series of ludicrous paintings in which he casts himself as the French revolutionary hero Marat, being slashed in his bath by Tulla as Marat’s murderer, Charlotte Corday.
In truth, all this can and does get silly. But two reliable talents save Munch from ridiculousness, even when his fantasies get nutty. The first is a fantastically inventive artistic touch that moves him from medium to medium, and manner to manner, for the sheer fun of it. His graphic work is spellbinding. Watching him experiment with different degrees of black, multi-coloured inks, coloured pencils, lithographs here, woodcuts there, is so exciting.
His other saving talent is a supreme appreciation of sadness: that dull, low flame that splutters on weakly when you turn the gas down. By about 1900, he was an alcoholic, and in 1908 he suffered a severe nervous breakdown that effectively divided his life in two. His career is usually understood as consisting of two imbalanced parts: a brilliant beginning, followed by a long, bland decline. This display challenges that perception by proving that the long decline was actually a sustained change of pace and tenor. If the brilliant beginning was the drunken night out, then the long decline was the morning after, and the morning after that, and so on.
Sadness, regret, hesitation, guilt and the most fragile of intermittent optimisms enter his repertoire. Never repeating himself, in portrait after portrait, stare after stare, Munch part II is revealed here as a man in the know: Munch for grown-ups.