What with this end-of-days weather we've been having, the Henrik Ibsen plays coming to town and our obsession with Nordic noir on television and film, you might have thought that a journey to the heart of darkness with the Norwegian painter of pain, Edvard Munch, would be a familiarly depressing one. It's plain to see how the early deaths of his mother, younger sister and brother, his lifelong loneliness and his own brushes with mortality, which included contracting Spanish flu and being shot in the hand, all informed Munch's macabre outpourings from 'The Sick Child' to 'Self-Portrait with Wounded Eye'.
Yet there's hardly a gloomy, snow-filled landscape, a solitary boat-on-lake scene or any other such Scandinavian stereotype to be seen in this Tate Modern survey, dwelling as it does largely on post-1900 Munch – essentially everything after his celebrated (but annoyingly absent) 'The Scream' of 1893.
Not that his own mood lifted appreciably after that most primal expression of terror. Indeed, Munch was committed to a nerve clinic for electroshock treatments in 1908 after suffering a severe mental breakdown. The following months were, however, some of his most productive artistically and he later admitted: 'Without the fear of life and illness, I would be a ship without a helmsman.' So, for every setback he experienced, Munch reacted with a creative spurt – for every black mark he made, there were dozens more strokes of brilliant colour. Feeding off his personal misery in this way, like the bloodsuckers in his 'Vampire' series, undoubtedly invigorated Munch's creativity and led him to revisit and repaint his traumas obsessively, perhaps cathartically, over and over.
Most energetic of his already fractious, faceless groupings of people are those pictures recalling Munch's drunken brawl with friends that degenerated into a threatening standoff with a rifle. The room featuring various versions of 'The Fight' and 'Uninvited Guests' bristles with danger, jeopardy and regret, much as his ambulance-chasing images of panicked crowds fleeing fires delight in the dynamism of bodies in distress.
Much is made in this exhibition of how Munch achieved these effects by watching WWI newsreels or clipping newspaper photographs of executions, but his interest in mechanical reproduction was fleeting and his most troubling scenes, such as 'The Murderer' or 'Man and Woman by the Window with Potted Plants', are fictional micro-dramas and every bit as constructed as a scenario from Cluedo.
Despite the unremitting nature of Munch's self-portraiture in various states of decrepitude, his decision to paint himself almost until his last breath can only be admired. He was never scared to put his strange visions down on paper or canvas. It was as though he knew that by honestly portraying his innermost fears and loathings, he might somehow shed them and wake up to realise it had all been just a bad dream.
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