The absence of The Scream from the Edvard Munch retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—it was, memorably, stolen in broad daylight from an Oslo museum—highlights something important about this Norwegian painter. Munch (1863–1944) is not a wild-eyed expressionist; he is not, as the title The Scream might suggest, an artist of cathartic release. The muffled atmosphere of suppression is what excites his tremulous sensibility. He inhabits claustrophobic rooms and secretive landscapes. He yearns. His art seems to coil and wind back upon itself, generating shadowy internal blooms. Munch’s manner provides a wonderful counterpoint to our own time. We howl. He’s a master of the unsaid.
Organized by Kynaston McShine, “Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul” contains many of Munch’s best-known paintings and works on paper. It also includes a group of self-portraits—among them a great work of melancholic narcissism, Self-portrait With a Cigarette. (A handsome show of Munch’s prints is on view nearby at Scandinavia House.) The feverish tone in Munch’s art derived, in part, from a sickly childhood. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was a child. The same disease killed his sister when he was 14. He himself spit up blood. No painter has conveyed with comparable power the cloying air of the sickroom: In The Sick Child, a painting exquisitely painful to look at, the profile of a fading girl is framed (as if forever) against a pillow. Although Munch’s earliest work was fairly conventional, he soon found—in the Paris of the 1890s—the aesthetic hothouse that his sensibility sought, immersing himself in the lush dreams of fin de siècle Symbolism.
Munch lived for a long time, but he is mainly remembered for the work he made in the 1890s, his miraculous decade. He regarded many pictures from those years as part of a “Frieze of Life” that traced the difficult evolution of love, from early infatuation to jealousy, despair, and death. In Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice), an evocation of erotic yearning, the upwelling emotion within the female figure is so powerful that it seems to blur her outer form. The trees become metaphorical bars in her physical prison. Behind her back, the shaft of moonlight—rhyming with the trees, rhyming with her figure—suggests the melting release that will never be attained. The picture is rich in brilliant details. The intensifying white on her dress, for example, privately mirrors the lush moonlight. Everything in the world—Nature itself—seemed to send messages to Munch. The Scream originated in an experience he had on a bridge: “I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.”
Munch’s work from the 1890s is visually taut. The inner life of the artist is mixed into the outer world of appearances with mysterious poise. Edges and boundaries may tremble and bend but they also generally hold, seemingly as supple as living skin. (An exception is The Kiss, in which the male and female faces fully merge, losing their separate identities to become a featureless one.) In his later work, Munch’s feeling for line and boundary changes. His brush becomes more slapdash, more obviously expressionist and less constrained by appearances. He did not burn out, but he lost heat. Munch is, finally, more an artist of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth. His pictures look best in the close bourgeois rooms in which he grew up. In a tamped-down space, they have an explosive intensity. The MoMA installation—white galleries, high ceilings, open spaces—does not suit him. It strips him down. It dissipates his force. It accentuates his distance from us. The show’s title, “The Modern Life of the Soul” (the phrase is Munch’s), also establishes his distance from the present. The word “soul” has an old-fashioned ring; it sounds exposed and vulnerable. But I like all that. I like the uneasy pressure of difference created by this exhibition. In the age of Prozac, Munch’s lost melancholy can brighten a day.