In his paintings and especially his wildly experimental prints, the bereft, brilliant Munch created a universal language of despair
British Museum, London
The face of pale, tense, insomniac, looms like a moon in outer darkness. Black night seethes all around him and there is a funereal austerity to his collar and neatly combed hair. The wide moustache and low-slung eyelids are superbly described, and you might stop there, amazed at the graphic acuity of this lithograph, nearly the size of life and one of Munch’s earliest and largest prints. But then comes the double take: resting along the bottom, where his own arm should be, is the bony white arm of a skeleton.
Half-dead, yet still alive. This is classic Munch, exaggeration in the service of emotional truth. The artist was only 32 when he made this print in 1895, and would survive another 50 years, but already felt himself to be living a posthumous existence of alcohol, despair and poverty. He had begun making prints the previous year, initially for money, but continued right up to his death in 1944. They are among his fiercest works, sometimes greater than the canvases, on the strength of this exhibition, which includes both. For Edvard Munch: Love and Angst opens with this shattering self-portrait and never lets up.
Here are glowering forests in which lone figures lurk among prison-bar trees, and lake shores where silent couples contemplate a future of darkly spreading waters. Here are lithographs of femmes fatales, tentacular hair wrapped around the throats of their male lovers, and woodcuts of men and women drowning in waves of mutual despair.
The Norwegian landscape hurtles away towards the sharpest vanishing point. Lovers lose their identity, merging in misbegotten lumps. The famous little hominid, hands to face on the bridge, screams for ever in a howling storm of radio waves, migraine-bright against the dark skies. Munch, in black and white, is on fire.
His own face is everywhere: in the night cafe, in the shadowy bedroom, grappling naked with one of his lovers. In the day-for-night gloom of an afternoon bar, he appears with his friend the bottle. This object sits upright and commanding on the table, presiding over his faltering will. Munch’s raging alcoholism would eventually lead to a breakdown.
This sense of his own suffering is not episodic but continuous, his experience perennially raw. Munch seems to have believed that we are all powerless before outrageous fate, and in a sense that is what the prints are for. They broadcast the bad news out across the world, further and wider (and cheaper) as the images on canvas never could. Despair, Jealousy, Angst, the titles speak to us all, and to our common human suffering.
Munch’s own misery may be programmatic, but his prints are utterly dynamic. There is huge originality in the tragic black humps of his ill-starred lovers, and the strange repeating “i” motif of the circular moon and its watery reflection, lengthening into a sinister question-mark. He made an extraordinary virtue of the grain of the wood blocks he carved, so that they read vertically like downcast archaeology best rain or horizontally as a kind of Hammer Horror fog pervading a landscape.
And while many printmakers leave areas blank to register as radiant light, Munch can make even this whiteness seem frightening. There is drypoint print in this show of a barefoot child standing in shadow by a window, through which the light pours in a brilliant white rectangle on the floor. She looks down at this phenomenon, paralysed, apparently afraid of its supernatural shining.
Nothing in Munch’s life or writing suggests that his feelings were insincere. “Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle,” he wrote. “I felt always that I was treated unjustly, without a mother, sick and with threatened punishment in Hell hanging over my head.” His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five – a photograph at the British Museum shows them together at this age, she presumably only weeks away from death – and his father was a hellfire protestant who woke the boy at midnight to witness the death of Edvard’s young sister.
Both deaths are reprised over and again in prints of black-clad figures waiting by a bed, or gathering to mourn the departed. And most particularly in the many variations of The Sick Child, originally a much-repeated painting (the second variation is in this show). In prints, the child lies in bed, head profiled on the white pillow, which stretches away like waning light. The strongest is a lithograph from 1896 made with four different stones – black, grey, yellow and red – in which even her hair appears to be bleeding to death.
Munch, in colour, is the most wildly experimental printmaker. A woman’s nude body floats golden in pink-tinged light. A blue man comforts a crimson woman. A lithograph titled Madonna – that bare-breasted beauty with the swirling hair familiar from several paintings – turns the air red around the orgasmic figure, adding a crouched foetus in the margin like a warning.
Perhaps the most startling print is of a woman with virulent green eyes and a blaze of red hair. Compare her face with that of Tulla Larsen, Munch’s only fiancee, and you see the image is both individual and archetypal. Jealousy personified, yet also a real woman. The colour rises to screaming pitch.
Munch met Larsen in 1898 and they travelled Europe together until the relationship finally exploded back home in Oslo because she wanted to get married and Munch, who seems to have been almost comically afraid of marriage, refused her. Larsen threatened to kill herself; Munch, not to be outdone, shot himself first. But he only damaged the tip of his middle finger, and not his painting hand in any case. Incredibly, the hospital x-ray appears in this show.
And perhaps it gives a clue to Munch’s skull-beneath-the-skin visions. X-rays, “aura” photographs, Freudian analysis: this was an age of strange revelations. His art is full of them too. And his extraordinary gift for coining both archetypes and forms – the worm, the keyhole, the diamond-shaped face with full-stop eyes, the shadows that leak from bodies like pooling blood stains, all those figure-eight women with their heads thrown back – is enormously more concentrated in the prints.
Munch believed in art as all-out theatre. He designed stage sets for Strindberg and Ibsen, which he then converted into posters and condensed into prints. Like his compatriots, he wants to make visible the invisible life of the heart, and nowhere is this more apparent than the woodcuts, where the same scene may be repeated to ever more intense effects. In Angst 1, a crowd of strangers surges towards the viewer; in Angst 2, the block recut and recoloured, the strangers keep on coming, but now they are terrifying zombies.
The private literally became public in this mass-media art. Munch sold more than 30,000 prints in his lifetime, reaching into thousands of homes. He was surely right to say that he had tried to find an explanation for life, through his art, and help others to understand its meaning. These images, with all their graphic force and energy, recast his own experiences as universal truths.