Great Works: The Death of Marat, 1907 (150x200cm) Edvard Munch

Munch Museet, Oslo

The paintings of Edvard Munch often confine the onlooker within an unnervingly straitened psychological space. You are present, watching, but it also feels a little like eavesdropping – and a little like entrapment, too. This is especially so of Munch's self-portraits. Munch, like Rembrandt, was an obsessive, life-long self-portraitist, but the way in which these two artists approached the task could not have been more different. The essence of Rembrandt does not change from portrait to portrait – his sense of self was relatively stable. What changes is the costuming. Rembrandt is consistently faithful to the abundant world, which exists outside him with all its gorgeous, fleshy tactility.

With Munch, there is a terrible blurring, if not a smearing, between inner and outer worlds. He is forever taking his own temperature. In a relatively early one, the Self-Portrait with a Burning Cigarette of 1895, he shows himself, though eerily lit, to be a debonair, raffish smoker, almost clubbable. Never again. Generally speaking, when Munch paints himself, he does so in order to prove that he exists, that he is still fully embodied. His portraits are nervy, febrile, tense in the extreme. He changes, and changes again. He seems to be present at a haunting – but the person doing the haunting, and the person who is being haunted, happen to be the very same man whose face he confronts in the mirror every wretched, workaday morning. His colours are often feverishly wild and unpredictable. They are faithful to nothing but the vision of Edvard Munch. The more intense the reds, the purples, the yellows, the worse things are going.

So what exactly is being enacted in this strange work? It shares its title with a celebrated painting of 1793 by the memorialist of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David, which showed the revolutionary leader, Jean-Paul Marat, dying in his bath. When David paints Marat dying, there is no sign of the murderess, Charlotte Corday.

In Munch's version, the malignant woman dominates the proceedings. What a wild state of affairs is conjured here! Look how it is painted, all this ferocious whirlpooling of brush strokes. The entire painting is like a kind of emotional maelstrom. Everything comes at us all at once, tipping and lurching, with great vividness and violence. The use of colour is almost anti-irrational – as if Munch is cocking a snook at the power of human reason to make sense of our terrible, howling complexities. The marks of the brush – horizontal, vertical and many points in between – are ferociously apparent across the painted surface, like some brutal ritual of scarification.

And yet throughout this wild evocation, the murderess seems to float towards us, almost ghost-like in her thin, pallid, unnerving, hour-glass-like beauty of sorts. She seems so strangely settled in her otherworldly indifference to her own crime. A huge, ominous shadow – of what? – hulks at her back, as if to suggest that much is not what it seems. The murdered man himself is like so much detritus – crude, puppet-like, and unlovingly flung to one side like a bloody, discarded mannequin.

Although Munch is pretending to distance the work from his autobiography by associating it with a key moment in the French Revolution, this is in fact a feint. He is referring to events in his own troubled life. The ghostly Charlotte resembles his sometime lover, Tulla Larsen. The blood that is smeared across the bed on which the murdered man lies is also rooted in the particular. Munch had shot himself in the finger after a row with Tulla in 1902. A certain amount of blood had flowed. His feverish imagination would never let him forget that act. Now we see it again, fully transfigured, and even sensationalised. As in so many paintings by Munch, he is also addressing the nature of the war between the sexes, the terrible, vampiric unpredictability of the feminine, so seductive, and yet so fear-inducing.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is a conjuror of disturbing psychological states. He painted his famous work, 'The Scream' (1893), over and over again. He was not so much interested in painting reality, as in trying to discover the heightened visual equivalent of intense human feeling.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea