The man who created The Scream introduces himself with morbid panache at the start of the British Museum’s inkily beautiful journey into his imagination. He looks normal enough, calm and sombre, except that he’s got a skeleton arm. “Edvard Munch 1895”, reads the inscription above him. He presents himself in this bony self-portrait as a specimen of fin-de-siècle decay, a morbid example of the modern condition. Munch was 32 when he created this.
In his head he clearly thought he was finished. In fact he would live until 1944, but this exhibition concentrates on his apocalyptic masterpieces of symbolist gloom from the 1890s and 1900s. Munch had good reason to feel cursed. Growing up in 19th-century Norway he was surrounded by illness and death. The most upsetting images here are not symbolist at all but distressingly matter-of-fact. Munch’s painting The Sick Child is shown beside its equally harrowing print version. They both mourn his sister Johanne Sophie who died when he was a teenager. Nearby is another cry of anguish, Dead Mother and Child. The child’s face is a doll-like mask of terror. Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old.
Perhaps his most devastating portrayal of loss is his ensemble scene Death in the Sick Room. In a room that looks like a stage set, a company of black-clad people slowly move in balletic sympathy, as they coalesce in silent grief. A girl is dying. She’s got out of bed to sit in her chair one last time. It is the final moment and everyone knows it. Again, this is not morbid fantasy but closely based on Munch’s own experiences. The exhibition shows this everyday tragedy beside Munch’s sketches for set designs for plays by the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, as well as his immensely characterful portrait of Ibsen sitting in a cafe, his face a map of human experience and insight as roughly sketched figures pass by on the street. Ibsen shook stages across 19th-century Europe with the naturalism of plays such as A Doll’s House and Ghosts. The intensity of Munch’s admiration for him comes as a fascinating surprise. It shows that Munch too thought of himself as some kind of realist.
Realism may not be what comes to mind when you look at Vampire II. A man lowers his head so his lover can sink her teeth into the back of his neck. She embraces him as she sucks his blood. Her red hair, tangled like gore-soaked seaweed, falls over his head. Munch designed this image in 1895, two years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published. Yet this is not a gothic image. It’s presented with the stark intensity of confession. The power of Munch’s art lies in the unparalleled way it pierces exterior appearances to reveal the reality of the mind.
In Attraction I, two young people gaze at each other with hollow eyes. In front of them is a black shore by an empty sea. On another of his eerie shores, a young woman looks from the pink sands at a lemon sunset on a pale sea. It is not always winter in Munch’s art. The spectral light of a Norwegian summer evening fills him with as much unease as the blackest night. Beside the young woman in her white dress sits a figure wrapped in a jet black robe with a lifeless face. Death is at your side even at midsummer.
Munch’s art is addictive. It is at once brutal and refined. This exhibition concentrates on his works on paper, revealing their astonishing technical qualities, even showing some of his original plates and lithographic stones. Many prints here were made using multiple methods, and reworked at different moments. They are marvels of technique that glow with sickly gorgeous colours. His erotic Madonna is a swirling dream of blue and black surrounded by a rich red border. The woman’s body is pinkish paper left bare, her breasts delicately delineated in hints of ink.
Yet the real reason this exhibition of Munch’s prints works so well is that it captures the myth-making essence of his art. In the 1890s Munch was not just sketching passing perceptions but dredging up symbols of psychic states. Other examples of late 19th century “symbolist” art are shown for comparison, by the likes of Gauguin and Odilon Redon. Munch’s symbols are the starkest and most universal.
Almost all the prints here also exist as paintings, yet the prints are in no way second best. They go to the heart of his enterprise. If he were to create a new symbolic language of feeling, his images needed to be reproducible. The sensual delight of Munch’s colours — including his sublime blacks — is ultimately secondary to content. In paint or print, his art lodges in your mind. Lonely people on the shore, a zombie-like city crowd in top hats and bonnets, the staring face of a young man possessed by jealousy — this exhibition is full of images you will never forget.
And then finally we come to the fjord where the whole of nature is transfigured by a great scream. I was suspicious of the hype for The Scream visiting London in this show. It’s on huge posters for the exhibition and has been in the media for months. It seemed a bit rich to big up this 1895 lithographic print of Munch’s masterpiece as if it was just as rare as the great 1893 painting in the National Museum, Oslo — or the other painted version in the Munch Museum. Art thieves know better (although after creating so much excitement around its lithograph, I hope the British Museum has good security). But scepticism changed to awe when I turned a corner and saw that ghost-like face, mouth wide open, hands over both ears. The Scream hits you like a bomb in black and white. The sky is a wobble of warped wood grain. Folds of black map the shore like ripples of trauma, crystallising in a lonely church tower. It’s like looking at a heart monitor. The pulsations echo and amplify through space and you feel the same claustrophobic oppression that is tormenting Munch’s universal figure of the modern soul. It is a work of art that abolishes the distance between us. Even as he portrays despair and loneliness and death, Munch does so in a way that celebrates our ability to communicate with each other. He leaves you harrowed yet inspired. This is an exhibition that shows why we need art. How else can we hear each other scream?
– Guardian News & Media Ltd
“Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” is at the British Museum, London, until July 21.