Edvard Munch: Misery of the man in the mirror

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Edvard Munch portrayed raw emotion, alienation and loss like no one else. As Tate Modern's new show opens, Adrian Hamilton asks what drove the painter of pain

The first thing to say about Tate Modern's new exhibition of Edvard Munch is that it doesn't have his Scream, in any of its four versions.

Not that this is a bar to enjoying it. Munch is an artist more than capable of surviving the loss of his most famous image and there are still plenty of works here to enjoy. What is striking is that the curators make quite such a point of leaving it out.

The point, says the Munch Museum of Oslo responsible for this travelling show in the run-up to the 150th anniversary of the artist's death next year, is that Munch is too often seen just as a 19th-century artist. In fact he lived most of his life (he was born in 1863 and died in 1944) in the 20th century and was a thoroughly modern man. Hence the title: Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye.

And what forms the basis of this "path-breaking rereading of the artist's works"? The fact that he read lots of newspapers, took photos and went to the cinema. Which artist of his time didn't, one might ask. The only special fact about Munch was that he took his dog with him to the cinema; if the dog barked, he left as the film was obviously not up to it.

The dog would certainly have howled at the short films his master shot of Oslo and his surroundings. They are truly execrable, for all the show's efforts to make them viewable now. The still photographs are more revealing for his obsession with picturing himself. But as experiments with the new art they could hardly described as "modern" or exciting, except for a glorious shot of himself painting on the beach clad in nothing but a loincloth and another of him fully naked in his garden brandishing a sword. The dog must surely have rolled around in helpless delirium at those.

No, Edvard Munch didn't have a modern eye. He was never part of the revolution that took over the arts in the 20th century. As a painter – and he was a very professional one – he was not oblivious to the trends in art. As a young man he spent most of his time (as most Scandinavian creative artists did) abroad. He absorbed the lesson of the post-impressionists and German expressionists with care. You can see Vuillard in his wallpaper patterns, Vallotton in his theatrics and Kirchner in his colouring. If he didn't experiment with cubism or abstraction it was not because he wasn't aware of them, but because he didn't feel the need to.

What he did have were very modern obsessions, above all with himself. The themes he set out from his earliest paintings were the ones he pursued all his life: loneliness, illness, pain and loss. And if he appeals today – as he clearly does from the numbers thronging to see this show in its previous locations in Paris and Frankfurt – it was because he found a language and a directnesss that still unsettles today. Even without the Scream, his Puberty from 1914-16 is pretty near the knuckle in its vision of a naked young girl at the edge of sexuality.

His successive pictures of The Kiss, with all the resonance of blood sucking and destructiveness, and his images of figures apart by the beach and girls on the bridge are replete with the symbolism of the late 19th century. But their visual language has an intensity and an energy which comes from a composition and a brush very much Munch's own. Not for nothing was he one of the great print artists of the last century. His grasp of the striking image to communicate emotion was way ahead of his time.

The curators would have you believe that it was cinema which inspired his dramatics, the figures rushing towards you, the faces staring directly at you, cut off below the shoulders. And that may have been the case. But Munch already had that sense of rushing momentum in the Scream of 1893 and other early pictures.

One coup is the presence in this London showing of all six versions of the Weeping Woman from 1907-09. It's a tired image in itself, the naked girl with the head bowed, but in the different states you see an artist playing with space, textures and colour to achieve different levels of claustrophobia and pathos. Facing each other in the second room, the early and late versions of The Sick Child from 1907 and 1925 and Vampire from 1893 and 1916-18, give a striking illustration of the way that he loosened his brush and brightened his colour to achieve greater impact as he grew older.

Munch had returned to Norway for good after a nervous breakdown in 1908. Thereafter he retreated more into himself. But his art remained open. There's a wonderfully fresh series of pictures of people in the snow from 1910 and 1920 including a striking Street Workers in the Snow and Galloping Horse from 1910.

The exhibition ends as it begins – with self-portrait. It was the theme Munch pursued obsessively all his life. These pictures form a stark contrast with so much of his other work in that the faces, even when they look at you, never engage with their eyes. They stare beyond, glance downwards or have their eyes obscured. In subject pictures he makes you feel as himself the raw emotion, but in his self-portraits you are at one remove, looking on an artist looking on himself. It makes the final pictures of himself in illness and, in the last Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed from 1940-43, all the more painful. However well-known, The Night Wanderer of 1923-24 still has the power to shock when seen in the raw.

For the full artist we will have to await the comprehensive show in Olso planned for next year, promising the largest ever display of his paintings. In the meantime you can enjoy this assembly of his works from the 20th century. Forget the interpretation. It's pretty specious. But do take pleasure in some marvellous works from a great image maker and a true artist.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, Tate Modern, London SE1 (tate.org.uk) to 14 October

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits