Beyond The Scream: why Edvard Munch was no one-hit wonder

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Few artists are as strongly associated with a single painting as Edvard Munch is with The Scream. Even before its endless memeability became apparent it was as much a fixture of popular culture as of art history. But there has always been more to Munch than his most famous work, and a new show at London’s Courtauld Gallery gives a rare chance to trace his wider career.

The exhibition comes from the collection of Norwegian industrialist Rasmus Meyer, who discovered Munch’s work in the early years of the 20th century and soon became an avid supporter and collector, going on to buy paintings directly from Munch’s studio, the paint almost still wet, as the saying goes. This is the first time his collection, held in the Kode art museum in Bergen, has been shown together outside Scandinavia. It takes work from the 1880s, when Munch was the rising star of Norwegian art, through his “golden decade” of the 1890s – when he developed his characteristic style and produced what became known as his The Frieze of Life series, including various iterations of The Scream – and into the 20th century.

“Norway had only really begun to crystallise as an independent nation at the end of the 19th century,” explains Courtauld curator Barnaby Wright, “and Meyer wanted to put together a collection of Norwegian art that would say something powerful about their culture and identity.” Not that Munch’s work was universally appreciated in 19th-century Norway. While he was attaining international recognition, disputes between conservative and avant-garde opinion played out in similar ways as they had with French impressionism in the 1870s.

The layout of the Courtauld, passing through their stellar collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art on the way to the exhibition space, is fortuitously suited to this show. Munch had been fascinated by the impressionists’ exploration of the effects of light, and new techniques for capturing them, but the lessons he took were then deployed for his own purposes. Rather than following Monet in taking his canvas outdoors to nature, Munch was more interested in painting from memory and out of his imagination, using light in a far more expressive and symbolic way.

By the 1890s he had developed this style of painting, employing richer and moodier colours to conjure an atmosphere of anxiety in which figures and landscapes increasingly reflected one another. He named these explorations The Frieze of Life, and “his ambition was to cover a spectrum of the most profound human emotions and experiences”, explains Wright. “Often drawing on his own memories from childhood; the loss of loved ones; torturous relationships with women. What makes these pictures endure is the complexity and multiplicity of feelings and emotions he evokes. However great The Scream is, it is just one example of Munch’s extraordinary output. This collection shows why so many of his pictures still speak so powerfully to us.”

‘Morbidity, death and precarious anxiety’: four key works from the exhibition

Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892, main picture)
Light plays a critical role in all of Munch’s work, and here he captures the creative possibilities of a strange moonlight mixed with gaslight. Evening on Karl Johan Street is a key Frieze of Life picture and the first time Munch used those skeletal faces that loom out of the canvas, which he repeated in his Scream paintings. This is the origin picture for that now famous visual device.

Self-Portrait in the Clinic (1909)
When Munch had a nervous breakdown he sought treatment at a clinic in Copenhagen. His life had been lived at an intense pitch. When Munch was a child, his father was zealously religious, and an air of morbidity and death hung over the family. It clung to Munch for the rest of his life and it was this sense of precarious anxiety that fed into his art. This particular work has an interesting parallel with Van Gogh’s self-portraits after his severe mental episodes in depicting a man and an artist attempting to rebuild himself.

Children Playing in the Street in Åsgårdstrand (1901–03)
Munch spent many of his summers in the small coastal fishing town of Åsgårdstrand. Here, he takes a seemingly mundane everyday activity and turns it into something more profound. Are the boys taunting the young girl, looking at her as an object of desire or just playing? Equally enigmatic, is she, on the borderline of adolescence, pleading for assistance or facing them down?

Melancholy (1894–96)
The idea that emotions are at their most extreme when people are on the edge between areas, such as the shore and the water, was a fertile one for Munch. Here it reflects the state of mind of the central figure, lost in his own tragic thoughts and also isolated from the two background figures on the jetty. This was the first time Munch adopted this new deeply moody and symbolic manner.

Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen is at the Courtauld Gallery, London, from Friday to 4 September.

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