Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch’s biographer, on a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy
Munch by Himself
Munch by Himself at the Royal Academy is an ambitious exhibition of about 150 works, mostly self-portraits. “My pictures are the pages of my diary,” wrote Munch. This was no record of the everyday, but “a journal of the modern life of the soul”, as he put it, “trying from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul.” Edvard Munch’s soul was of the first generation that had to cope with Darwinism; with the anarchistnihilist political thought of the fathers of the Russian Revolution, such as Kropotkin and Bakunin; and with Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that God was dead.
The painted autobiography arranged on the walls of the Royal Academy in more-or-less chronological order makes a fascinating exploration through the mind of the man whose deepest crisis can be described as “A scream of fear just as nature, turning red from wrath, prepares to speak before the storm and thunder to the bewildered little creatures who, without resembling them in the least, imagine themselves to be gods.” Strindberg’s comment on “The Scream”, made in 1893, seems just as appropriate to man’s condition today.
God, or the absence of a god, haunts the exhibition. Born in 1863, Munch described his Pietist father as obsessively religious to the point of psychoneurosis. The opening pair of simultaneously executed selfportraits show how the 19-year-old Munch dealt with the situation. The first, showing the apparently obedient son, is all surface. A flawless exercise in the Neoclasssical style of his teacher Julius Middelthun, it gives the impression of a painted marble statue. The second shows a shy young man, all vulnerability; the painting is so loose that his fingerprint remains in a dab of pink paint. The avant-gardes of 1890s Berlin and Paris were the first to recognise the value of self-portraiture that went beneath the skin, and the exhibition includes some of his most famous pieces from this time: “Selfportrait with Skeleton Arm”, the hypnotic “Self-portrait with a Cigarette”, “Vampire” and “The Scream” (sadly here only represented by the 1895 lithographic version) as well as some of his worst symbolist excesses, “Salome Paraphrase” and “Vision”, clichés concocted from the fin de siècle recipe book of dubious ideas. Charlotte Corday. It is worth a visit to the exhibition just to see these enormous and extraordinary masterpieces of 1907. Large areas of naked canvas show between foot-long A violent quarrel with his lover Tulla Larsen left a finger of Munch’s hand shattered by a bullet. The incident inspired the marvellous “Death of Marat” series in which he is the dying Marat and Tulla is the assassin brushstrokes of clear bright colours – reddish-brown, blue, green, citron yellow – and the very remarkable quality of these pictures is how, using such enormous brushstrokes and so much blank space, he is able to convey subtleties of emotion, light and space. The shooting led to a breakdown. Munch spent eight months in a clinic being cured of alcoholism. This process included writing a book, with the aim, in anticipation of Freud’s talking cure, of exorcising his demons by describing them. “My Soul Is like Two Wild Birds” each “Pulling in a Different Direction” and “We Have Worlds within Us” are later versions of two of the pages. Do not miss the selfmocking cartoon, “Dr Jacobsen Changing the Crazy Brain of the Famous Painter Munch” showing him hooked up to an electrical contraption of Jacobsen’s invention while actually getting on with curing himself.
It is neatly symbolic that, with Munch shut up in the clinic, the RA invites us to undertake a journey up to the Sackler gallery for the second part of the exhibition. We come out at the top of the stairs just as Munch emerged from the clinic resolving to stick to “alcohol-free drinks, tobacco-free cigars and poison-free women” only to be confronted with the seductive gaze of his new 19year-old model in “Ingeborg Kaurin as Madonna”. Some resolutions are made to be broken.
Two new major series, “The Seducer” and “The Artist and His Model”, follow. Full of dramatic tension, depicting the threatening presence of the artist in the life of his model, they explore the themes of mutual dependency and sexual tension whether fulfilled or unfulfilled and they pose the question: who dominates whom in the balance between inspiration and execution?
The self-scrutiny does not flinch at the humiliations of sickness and old age. “I have a marvellous free model by painting my own skinny body in front of the mirror,” he crows. “I use myself for the biblical characters: Lazarus, Job, Methuselah etc” but the terror at the end of the journey cannot be banished entirely by bravado. He stands shrunken but ramrod straight in “Between Clock and Bed”, those two symbols of death, facing his own absorption back into the implacable continuum of the universe.
In a final, tender flourish the exhibition closes with the superlative landscape “Starry Night” in which Munch is present simply as a shadow cast across the snow.
Sue Prideaux is the author of Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream (Yale University Press, £25)