Edvard Munch: a head for horror

From corpses on the highway to his sister on her deathbed, Edvard Munch was a master of the morbid. At a new Tate retrospective, Adrian Searle even finds his wallpaper terrifying

A detail from Edvard Munch's Murder on the Road, 1919.

Hurrying away from the body in the road, the button-eyed murderer looks surprised by how easy it all was. He is heading our way, his eyes fixed on something only he can see. The painting is as quick and careless as the crime itself. Look too long at any bit of this painting, and it quickly falls apart. But this is also what is so good about Edvard Munch’s 1919 Murder on the Road. There’s not much expression there, the violence already forgotten. It is the record of a man in a rush to be elsewhere. You’d have trouble describing the murderer, except for those eyes – which are in any case just a couple of dots poked into an empty face the colour of the road. He’s a sketchy kind of guy.

The whole thing has a penny-dreadful tabloid feel, and Munch might have based it on a grisly story in a Norwegian newspaper. After the mass slaughter of the first world war, and the pandemic of Spanish influenza (which Munch caught, and survived, the same year he painted this), what’s one more stupid little killing on a quiet country road?

Munch liked a good murder. A man dies on a couch, blood drooling on to the furniture. His female killer stands across the room against awful green wallpaper, her face a mad scary-movie shriek. The pattern in the wallpaper swarms and roars. You want to get out of there, to be as far away as that hurrying killer on the road. And yet you stay. It is all too horribly compelling.

Munch painted other scenes from this same room: of jealousy and seduction, of silence and something awful about to happen. Each is like a scene from the same grim play, and he would then paint the same sad scene over and over. Six paintings, a bronze sculpture, various drawings, lithographs and photographs all depict a naked woman standing and weeping beside a bed, her head lowered. In each painting, her head is a distraught mess of pigment. I thought of Pierre Bonnard and of Edward Hopper: both succeeded here at what Munch tries and tries and fails to do. Munch’s weeping woman is a kind of no one: it is not even clear that she is weeping. Bonnard and Hopper leave you with a sense of an individual in a space.

Even the paintings that are misconceived or a mess are fascinating records of a struggle. To be between greatness and inarticulacy, and to not care either way, takes a perverse sort of courage. At times Munch’s paintings show great daring; at others, they become incoherent. Munch was extremely good at doing nasty. You could say he savoured it, and so do we: all those vampires and ruined relationships, horror, illness and death. His appetite for the sanguine is shared by most of us who watch thrillers and crime dramas and read murder stories. How Scandinavian of him, as Björk might sing.

Munch didn’t just paint nasty things: it got into the way he painted too, even – perhaps especially – when he painted himself. Unsparing, Munch portrayed himself sick with the Spanish flu, drunk and with the bottles rearing up at him, ill and old and alone, sunken-faced, maundering around a darkened house. He turned himself into a character: melancholy Munch, a man beset by miseries, alcoholism, his own fame and fortune, his conspicuously wayward talent and his endless personal troubles – even though he was once a handsome man (not that the best of looks protect anyone from self-hatred).

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye tries to make us see Munch as modern in several ways: his repetition and serial repainting, his interest in photography and film, his use of theatrical lighting. He was aware of the opportunities and limits afforded by these different media. We always cast the art of the past in the ways that suit us: there is always new research, and new ways of looking. As it is, legions of artists have taken from him in one way or another. Andy Warhol reworked Munch in electric colour. Jasper Johns has quoted him. Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, René Daniëls, Tracey Emin and a host of belated neo-expressionists have sucked his blood. Johns made several beautiful paintings in homage to Munch’s late self-portrait Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed. Mostly, this consists of stylistic borrowings of his touch and the spatial organisation of his paintings, but it is also (in Doig’s case, in particular) a matter of adopting an atmosphere.

These reanimations keep Munch alive for us. He also, endlessly, quoted himself. This was more than just feeding his market – though for a long time he did just that, repainting Puberty four times, The Kiss 11 times, the Sick Child (a painting purportedly of his sister dying of tuberculosis), six times. Which is the authentic Sick Child, or the real Scream? Was this catharsis or copying? Something of both. If there is also a sense of regurgitation, well, there was an element of disgust in much of what he did. What is not modern about Munch is his bohemian misanthropy. Maybe it is his conspicuous misery that feels old-fashioned – though he had much to be miserable about: the premature deaths of his mother and siblings, his failed love affairs and fights (he was shot in the hand), his breakdowns and drinking, his eye problems. Apart from anything else, this misery has no humour in it.

Edvard Munch's self-portrait on Warnemünde beach, 1907. Photograph: Munch Museum

The exhibition makes much of Munch’s photography, though he took far fewer photographs than his contemporaries Bonnard or Edouard Vuillard, and used photography much more indirectly than, say, Degas, in the service of his art. These photographs are dim, grey, often uncertain things. A great effort is expended in interpreting their cropped figures, double-exposures and vague terrains. There is a terrific emptiness about the yard beside the house where his mother died, and a lot of self-aggrandising in his self-portraits; he took pictures of himself, sometimes naked, adopting theatrical poses of one sort or another. Their relationship to his art, in any practical sense, is extremely limited, though they obviously held some kind of meaning for him.

The bits of film footage Munch shot are even less convincing. He looms and crouches before the camera, as though uncertain about why he is there or what he should do. The footage is a jumble of street scenes in Germany and Norway, footage of his aunt and sister and his friends, strangers on the street. “In the five minutes and 17 seconds that have survived, we can see his fascination with urban life,” the catalogue tells us. Maybe he was just mucking about with a new toy.

What really counts here are the paintings, with their swooning fluidity and their weirdness, their interrupted rhythms, their intimacies and drama. Perhaps what Munch was best at was painting emptiness and waiting, things impending. He may be best known for the Scream, which isn’t in the show, but it is not his best painting, and gets in the way of the totality of his achievement.

How modern was Munch? At dusk one evening last week, a man in the street threatened to stab me in the heart. “You’re not a man,” he said, searching for an insult and looking for a fight. “You’re a woman.” Hoping he might lose interest, my lover and I turned away and kissed, our faces mashing. After a bit the man wandered off, looking for more suitable victims. He was a sketchy kind of guy. It was a Munch-ish sort of moment.


By Adrian Searle
Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk