The Night Wanderer, 1923-4, 90cm x 68cm by Edvard Munch

Munch Museum, Oslo

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?

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015