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

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture