Edvard Munch’s art was made from his troubles. When, in middle age, he retreated to the estate he had bought on the outskirts of Oslo (then still called Kristiania), love affairs, drink, a nervous breakdown and illness had already supplied the subject-matter his peculiarly subjective art required. The ideas he developed early he went on using. Late in his career he wrote: ‘The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright. My path has led me along the edge of a precipice, a bottomless pit … From time to time I’ve tried to get away from the path, thrown myself into the throng of life among people. But every time I have had to go back to the path along the cliff top.’

His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868 when he was five, and his sister Sophie of the same disease nine years later. Munch’s painting The Sick Child was the first of a string of images to which he returned throughout his life, repeating, generalising and reinventing them in lithographs, etchings and woodcuts as well as in new painted versions. These icons, quite small in number, grew out of memories of critical moments in his life – like the death of his sister. His genius was to make images of considerable, if obscure, symbolic force from them.

Despair, painted in 1892, shows a man in a soft hat, his profile half lost, looking downwards into the darkness. He is leaning against a railing that climbs in sharp perspective towards a distant patch of water and a lurid orange sunset. A few yards down the railing are two men in top hats. A diary entry written shortly before the picture was painted refers to an incident some years earlier:

I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – I felt a breath of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I stopped and leaned against the railing deadly tired – looking out across flaming clouds that hung like blood and sword over the deep blue fjord and town – my friends walked on – I stood there trembling with anxiety and I felt a great, infinite scream through nature.

Despair was a less abstract forerunner to the several painted and graphic versions of The Scream, with all the elements already in place: the railing, the men in top hats, the ships, the town, the sunset.

The sequence of paintings exhibited at various times as The Frieze of Life mostly has to do with love and sex: the themes are romantic conjunction (the kiss) and romantic destruction (the woman as vampire), attraction (alternating with repulsion), jealousy, separation, melancholy, anxiety; there is a blissfully sensual Madonna from 1894-95 (a foetus and spermatozoa decorate the frame in a lithographed version). These pictures are all in one way or another autobiographical. When Munch paints figures in a landscape that carry those feelings, or even unpeopled landscapes, it is his emotional state you feel weighing on you. As a result, all his pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits. Munch by Himself at the Royal Academy (until 11 December) includes pictures which do not show his face, but are entirely relevant to the theme of the exhibition.

In the self-portraits which are just that – pictures of Munch’s face – you feel he is explaining himself to himself, as a writer sometimes will in a journal. There are a great many of them, and if you follow the sequence in time, you see his face change from young and soft to gaunt and bony. I watched Scorsese’s film No Direction Home after looking at the exhibition and saw that Bob Dylan’s face has changed in much the same way. One could fancy that their lives were at the same time sources of their art and sculptors of their flesh. But one can’t push the parallel: in the film you see Dylan work an audience, you become aware of the distinction between being a performer and talking, horsing around and batting back questions in press conferences. In Munch’s case there is no separation between the personality of the maker and the persona of the artist. What gives more substance to the sense that Dylan and Munch might share more than the accident of the way flesh hangs on bone is the fact that Dylan, too, read Rimbaud and Baudelaire and that Munch’s images, particularly his early ones, were contributions to the general end-of-the-century Symbolist inflorescence – in 1896 he even worked on illustrations for Les Fleurs du mal.

In some of the pictures on show at the Royal Academy (the majority selected from the huge archive he left to the city of Oslo on his death in 1944) the painter is a cipher, a shadow, an implied presence; but even those in which Munch does appear as a recognisable face have stories to tell. In the mid-1920s, for example, he did a group of pictures called Self-Portrait: The Bohemian’s Wedding. They refer back, he said, to his experiences in the bohemian worlds of Berlin and Kristiania, the scene of the primal dramas of his life. The motif – people sitting round a table on which you can see glasses, a bottle, food and flowers – had been established in 1895 in Kristiania-Bohemia II, which showed ‘the much desired Oda Krohg surrounded by her many lovers and husbands’. Although Munch himself is the dominant figure in these later pictures, emotional tension still colours a scene. Had they been the work of Vuillard or Matisse or any number of other French painters who also painted groups round tables, their force would have derived from pleasure in the look of things and in convivial domestic life.

‘The Bohemian’s Wedding III’, 1925-26

‘The Bohemian’s Wedding III’, 1925-26

Among the best pictures here are those in which the raw material – the pain of jealousy, the fear of predatory women, depression and despair – is not worked symbolically but soaked up by a room or a landscape. In these, mostly the later works, the weight of Munch’s anxiety is carried by uneasy perspective and bright, sometimes livid colour. The figures are arranged in stances that let you know – as they do when you come into a room where a row has been going on – that something is wrong. The painter’s face lours, frowns or grimaces, his body is hunched, stooped or – in Self-Portrait in Inner Turmoil (1920) – stands legs apart, his hands gripping the lapels of his coat.

Self-Portrait: The Night Wanderer of 1923-24 grew out of a memory of an unexpected encounter with his reflection in a mirror. His mouth has begun to droop (photographs in the catalogue chronology confirm that it did over time come to approach the downturned arc of an inverse ‘smiley face’). The sleepless old man looks from shadowed eye sockets not at us – if one takes the notion that the picture is of a mirror – but at himself. Starry Night, painted in the same years, looks back to another Starry Night of 1895-97, which was built on memories of looking out of a hotel window with his first mistress. Now he is on his own. His presence is established not so much by the back of a head – which bumps up at the foot of the picture – as by the shadow it casts on the balcony outside and on the snow beyond. The dark mounds of trees; the distant yellow splash of the lights of a town; the stars themselves in a sky which runs from pink on the horizon through green to blue; the light from the windows behind us on the snow: all add to the feeling his pictures often give that one has arrived at a significant moment.

The late pictures look as if they have been painted quickly, with a kind of urgent carelessness. When you look for similarly subjective painters to compare Munch with, you find artists who got more out of the physical business of picture-making. Soutine’s clotted skeins of paint, for example, or Schiele’s stringy, barbed outlines are positively lovely. These men, it seems, were not as impatient as Munch was to catch an emotion. But Munch had his own way of treating disturbing images, and when they hit a nerve, even if it doesn’t happen all that often, his unpainterliness is an advantage. It gives his pictures force – as witness statements take force from their unliterary flatness. Baudelaire called for painters to give an account of modern life. Munch, who was at odds from the beginning with Norwegian naturalism, became what he wanted to be: a painter of the inner life.

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