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Edvard Munch: Misunderstood genius

27th June 2012

It's fair to say that Edvard Munch is best remembered for The Scream, which is by no means a bad thing given how powerful a work it is (series of works to be more accurate), but as a new show at the Tate Modern in London opens, we are presented with an oeuvre that reveals a hidden depth to this much misunderstood artist.

Munch is, courtesy of The Scream, famous the world over, but equally, because of the popularity of this painting, much of his other work is drowned out by its arresting "symphonic noise".

Tate Modern readdresses this disparity in its new exhibition Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, examining the Norwegian artist's output during the 20th century and revealing him to be a true master of misery and gloom. "Naught so sweet as melancholy" as the great English scholar Robert Burton put it.

What is evident in the show is Munch's difficulty to exist. He was known to be a heavy drinker, which further compounded his already miserable temperament, leading him to admit at one point that he thought he was on the verge of madness. However, these moods swayed wildly, and no sooner was he downbeat he emerged bullish and in good spirits.

The Guardian's Adriane Searle looks up the works as a "record of struggle". While a writer may attempt to deal with his misfortunes and sufferings through records in a journal, those of a visual temperament are inclined to do so visually, and painting therefore becomes more than just a creative act but also a cathartic one.

"Munch didn't just paint nasty things: it got into the way he painted too, even – perhaps especially – when he painted himself," he adds.

"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."

Like being invited to read someone's diary at their behest, Munch's show can be uneasy viewing, as if we've intruded into his personal space. This is because he painted candidly, unflinching in his pursuit of his own truth, liberated by what he created on the canvas.

Take for example Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), one of the symbolist's final paintings. It can be ostensibly observed to be a weak contribution to his earlier work, lazy even, the nebulousness not a stylistic thing.

Yet it is pure emotion, brutal and violent in its composition, the work of an old man who concedes that he is no longer the painter he was, but regardless, still very capable of delivering something reflective and meaningful. It thus transpires that its weaknesses are in fact its strengths, and we wonder, how do we explain that to future artists learning to perfect certain brushstrokes?

For Munch was, after all, at the epitome of his career, an exceptional technician, gifted in loading context into the weight of the paint that rested on the canvas, from which he shells us with macabre colours that leave us twitching, while haunting shapes put us ill at ease.

Take for example the fourth version of The Sick Child (1907), a very intimate work that references the personal tragedy he suffered as a young boy, losing both his mother and sister to tuberculosis.  An expressionistic magnum opus, every brushstroke is tinged with sadness, as if there was no other way to compose such a painting without enduring his own hell, resulting in an extremely immediate painting.

The unstructured form and the muted colours come together perfectly, thumping us with Munch's despair, an unavoidable pathos. We grieve with him, for his loss and that which we have also suffered in our own lives.

We are left admiring Munch so much more after experiencing his wider collection and tellingly, we understand that though The Scream is an explosive and arresting painting, it is not necessarily his best and most important work. We also learn that it was inevitable that his muse – tragedy/death – was always going to dictate his artistic direction.

Though this led to a great deal of difficulty in his own life, haunted as he appeared to be by a lurking darkness, it did help to set him apart as a great artist. From something so despondent emerged greatness. We're sure he wouldn't have had it any other way: "From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."

This was my life.

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