Look back in angst

The most radical aspect of Tate Modern’s new show Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye is that it does not contain “The Scream”. Five “Screams” exist: two paintings, a lithograph and two pastels, one of which sold last month for $119m. More than Munch’s most famous image, “The Scream” is a logo of existential angst that heralded and embodied the 20th-century sensibility of introspection, alienation, terror. It is from these long-held associations that Tate aims to set Munch free.

‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1927)

Was Munch’s modern eye as formally experimental as it was psychologically probing? Certainly, with his reiterated “Screams”, six versions of “The Sick Child”, seven of “The Girls on the Bridge”, 11 of “Weeping Women”, Munch exploited the nature of the iconic image, its reproducibility, the aesthetic potential and commercial value of repetitions, decades before Andy Warhol was born. He also owned a camera and liked the cinema; more than a third of the works at Tate are his photographs, and there are also two films. As in shows within the past year devoted to impressionism and photography – the Royal Academy’s Degas and the Ballet, the touring Snapshot, Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art – the idea here is to reposition a 19th-century master as an unexpected 20th-century multifaceted artist.

The exhibition opens with five self-portraits in as many media. A conventional oil painting depicts the young artist as earnest, melancholy bohemian. Then, in a sepulchral lithograph of 1895, the breakthrough year of “The Scream”, Munch subsumes his disembodied head in black tusche ink, enhancing contrasts of light and shade, mass and void – a gestural handling of lithographic ink as if it were paint. Fine, wispy lines model cold facial features in lithographic crayon; beneath the head, an icy image of the bones of a hand and forearm rhymes with the entablature bearing the artist’s name and date above his head. The work resembles a tombstone.

The woodcut “Self-portrait Facing Left” (1912-1913) is as grim: Munch’s face is built up by striations of white against a black background; the engraving process by which he gouges deeply into the grain of the wood mirrors the acute inward-looking temperament driving Munch’s work. “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?” he asked.

Beside such urgent expressive outpourings, the photographic self-portraits look like amateur games. A series taken in front of the house at Ekely, in rural Norway, to which Munch retreated after his nervous breakdown in 1908, fixes the artist in old age: still anxious, self-absorbed, defiant. A short silent film made in 1927 is a curiosity: Munch, inquisitive, leaning out towards the viewer but as self-obsessed as ever, is enjoying playing with a new gadget, a Pathé Baby camera. But the interest here is all documentary; it is hard to find any formal or aesthetic link between these and Munch’s oeuvre in paint and print.

Curators Angela Lampe and Clément Chéroux from the Centre Pompidou, Paris – where this show was launched last year – eschew biographical readings, presenting what they call “an exhibition of themes and theories”. But Munch is such an autobiographical artist that the work resists.

The long second room, for example, painted a claustrophobic red, displays on opposing walls celebrated series – the monstrous, auburn-haired femmes fatales in “Vampire” and “Ashes”; the figures facing an abyss in “Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones” and “The Girls on the Bridge” – which Munch created in the 1890s and 1900s, then reprised after the first world war. A text-panel explains that “the central motif is uprooted from its original setting and reworked in a new context”, so that Munch became, Lampe suggests, “a highly recognisable brand in the modern sense”. But the overwhelming impression in this haunted red room is that the motifs were not uprooted at all: they remained fixed in the nightmare tunnel of memory from which Munch never escaped, and which was his art’s bedrock.

Of “The Sick Child”, a recollection of the death of his beloved sister Sophie, which devastated the already motherless Munch as a teenager, the artist wrote that there was no other painter “who had lived through his motif until the last cry of agony as I had ... I repainted the picture many times over the years ... and tried again and again to capture that first impression – the translucent pale skin against the canvas – the tremulous mouth – the shaking hands”. Versions from 1907 and 1925, both dominated by a putrid green tonality, are displayed here; the earlier picture, with its downward coursing marks, is more intense, sharply delineated; the 1925 one more fluid, loosely painted, abstracted – like memory itself, hazily receding.

‘Self-Portrait with Bottles’ (1938)

This later style was the subject of a better-focused exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2005, which showed the searing yet sketchily painted self-portraits of Munch’s final decades. Some of the best are here – “Self-portrait Between Clock and Bed” (1943), where the 80-year-old artist, as skeletal as the ghostly figure in a panel hanging on his wall, counts the hours before death; the artist-as-barman in the 1938 stuttering, staccato “Self-portrait with Bottles”. (“The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright,” Munch said.)

The self-portrait which most demonstrates the impact of cinema – its close-ups, cropping, chiaroscuro effects – is “The Night Wanderer” (1923-1924), pinpointing a moment when Munch glimpses his gaunt figure in a mirror. The light from an electric bulb casts a Hopperish, film noir reflection on his face, transforming his dishevelled hair into a sulphur-yellow halo.

Echoes of the way film stretches space, and engulfs the viewer in vistas that seem to veer dizzyingly towards us, can be detected in “Starry Night”, painted around the same time as a rush of skies and darkness. And in “Murder on the Road” a black lump zooms up to the foreground, where a figure in shock, denoted by the barest outline of a face, dot-eyes and hunched shoulders, flees the scene.

Such works compel and appal because they are, first and last, imaginings of dread and horror by the godfather of expressionism. Photography here is an irrelevance; as Munch wrote: “The camera will not compete with brush and canvas so long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell.”

‘Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye’, Tate Modern, London, to October 14

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