Painting, for Edvard Munch, was a different kind of activity from the one experienced by many other painters. A job? A profession? A calling? Even the last seems a touch too dispassionate. With Munch, it is always a matter of taking into account the ongoing psychological drama of his life. In short, you have to ratchet things up until your teeth are almost on edge. Painting, for Munch, was the real, the only thing – often cloyingly intimate. Not always, but often. It was a means of intense self-scrutiny, self-definition. It was a way of taking the temperature of his own life – unsurprisingly, he often found himself feverish. Paintings enabled him to examine himself, his life, his impulses, in order to discover what he needed to know about himself, which, essentially, amounted to this: who in the world is this being who goes by the name of Edvard Munch? Much else in the world felt deeply unstable, too subject to whim, chance. Personal relationships were often chaotic, women disturbingly vampiric. His father was overbearingly preacherly.
His paintings, in short, were his closest friends, his most dependable companions, and he parted from them with great reluctance. It is therefore not at all surprising that he was so obsessively fond, lifelong, of self-portraiture. He made more than 70 paintings of himself during his lifetime, and many other drawings and sketches. He began very early, and he didn't stop until just before he died, in 1944. In the retrospective of his work that is currently on display at Tate Modern, we see in the very first room an early portrait dated 1882. This young man, caught in profile, is suave, assured. Yet, even here there is a mood of calculation. Munch is anxious to examine, we feel, what sort of being he was becoming, what sort of mask of himself he had chosen to don today. And so it proved to be, lifelong. Even his decline he needed to record, painstakingly. In fact, the gradual encroachment of death was very suitable subject matter for him, ripe for self-dramatisation. Many other artists have been keen to paint themselves, of course – think of Rembrandt, for example. But also think how far away, in mood and manner, Rembrandt is from Munch. Rembrandt simply does not possess Munch's anxious, on-some-lonely-outer-edge degree of self-absorption. Rembrandt, though he is fascinated by all this evidence of his ageing, feels relatively relaxed, even carefree, about it. When he strikes a pose, when he dresses up, we know that he knows that he is dressing up, striking a pose. With Munch, the poses mean that a different kind of Edvard Munch altogether may have emerged, a being even perhaps slightly unknowable – even inimical – to the one who was painted last time.
And so it is here, in this portrait of Munch on his large and isolated estate outside Oslo, 20 years before his death. It is a perfect example of Munch's particular kind of self-haunting. The mood is almost Hitchcockian – we can feel in our bones the disturbingly obsessive, Psycho-like musical accompaniment. He has erupted on to the scene. He peers round at us with his ridiculously garish, yellow hair, hollow-eyed, caught unawares. Colour always meant so much to Munch – as did vowels to Rimbaud. They are indicators of pain.
There is nothing comfortably domestic about this environment. The floor is a vertiginous sea. The walls seem enclosing. What is he wearing? An outer coat? Is he coming – or going? Is he a visitor here or a resident? So much contributes to our sense of uncertainty. We often read portraits by carefully examining one or two details: how the hands are painted, and what sort of a look we can see in the eye of the subject. Glazed or companionable? There are no hands and no eyes here. Munch refuses to let us get a purchase on him. The eyes are sockets of enshadowed blacknesses. There are no hands at all. This man is a leaning column. This portrait is a carefully staged depiction of the terrible drama of isolation
About the artist: Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was the creator of The Scream (1893) one of the most widely disseminated images of the angst of modern man. This image is by no mean atypical. Munch's work exists on some wild, self-tortured outer edge of human existence. Needless to say, he was an alcoholic. Did alcohol nurture the man's psychosis – or did the psychosis cause him to drown his misery in drink?
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