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Edvard Munch

Nigel Halliday

The modern eye
Tate Modern
Until 14 October

The purpose of this exhibition is to show Munch in a larger historical context than just the creator of The Scream and such iconic works. It focuses on his interest in photography and cinema, from which he borrowed dramatic compositional devices. It deals with his involvement in theatre, and devotes a room to the effects of impaired vision from which he suffered in later life, and his interest in its relationship to the subjectivity of normal vision. It also highlights how he revisited and reworked certain images, sometimes decades apart.

Sadly, to my mind, the exhibition only reinforces the perception that Munch is the creator of the The Scream and such iconic works, and the rest has been passed over for good reason.

The paintings from his earlier period are compelling and affecting. Much modernist art rejected the idea of narrative in painting in favour of pure colour and form.   Too often this drifted off into a sterile, intellectual game. Munch, in for instance The Sick Child (1907), draws on the abstract mark-making and heightened colour of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, but he enriches it with the emotional content of the child's pallor and the mother's grief. It is a powerful combination, also achieved in other ways in works such as The Kiss and The Vampire.

Munch has a strong line in conveying existential unease and a sense of alienation. The Girls on the Bridge (see p33) has the vertiginous perspective to throw the viewer off balance, and the sense of isolation from the group turned in on itself. He also manages at this stage to achieve a rich and attractive paint quality, which is later lost.

Sadly, Munch suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908. Afterwards his work seemed to take a more introspective turn. The earlier work had struck a general chord, seeming to address social unease in a way that is direct and clear, perhaps even calculated. But his later work feels more like art therapy. Like some of van Gogh's work, it seems to radiate personal neuroticism, but nothing of wider significance for the viewer. 

The representation in these later works at times becomes very rough. The paint seems to be applied with little appeal to aesthetics, and some of the faces are cartoonlike, with dots for eyes like Tintin.  

In Uninvited Guests (1932-5) Munch revisited an incident when he aimed a gun at a friend outside his house. It was clearly a traumatic memory for him, and the elements of the painting seem to be daubed on as a series of marks as he recalls the event piece by piece. However, I personally did not feel it had anything to say to the wider world. But perhaps that is why Munch, like van Gogh, still strikes such a chord with the modern viewer: he represents angst and alienation, and he lives it as well.  

The exhibition succeeds in establishing Munch as a fascinating character, representative of his age. But, in the end, not all paintings done by a 'master' are masterpieces, and many of the works on show here are disappointing.

Nigel Halliday