Seventh time lucky: Munch's numerous versions of "The Girls on the Bridge" show the artist striving for catharsis
Edvard Munch died in 1944 and was painting to the end. His natural peers, however, seem to belong to an older generation, personified by Gauguin and Van Gogh, rather than Modernists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, who both died in the same year as he did. Although the pictures that made Munch the tutelary deity of psychologists were painted in the 1890s — The Scream, Puberty, The Kiss, The Vampire — fully three quarters of his output dates from after 1900.
Part of the reason for the misapprehension about his work is that although he lived through many of the great movements of the early 20th century — Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstraction — he remained apart from them. This was not due to geographical remoteness, since he spent long periods outside Norway in Berlin and Paris, but more to do with his own impulses and the fact that the painting of his contemporaries affected his work far less than other art forms, notably writing and photography.
It is the aim of a major new exhibition at Tate Modern, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye (June 28-October 14), to dispel the image of the painter as a relic of Romanticism stuck in his northern fastness, oblivious to the world around him and fixated instead on delineating his pained inner life. Despite his celebrity, reinforced last month when a pastel version of The Scream sold for £74 million, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, Munch is a rare beast on these shores. The 60 paintings and 50 of his photographs in the exhibition make an unprecedented gathering here and are designed to show just how engaged Munch was with his times and what was happening around him.
This is a bit of curatorial blue-sky thinking since Munch himself gainsaid the notion of modernity and defined his art as "really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life". It was an idea he stated more than once and there is no escaping the fact that his most successful paintings are those that deal with the interior rather than the exterior world; he was, after all, an almost exact contemporary of Freud. Where this exhibition does work is in showing how Munch yoked new technologies such as photography and film to his timeless themes.
Munch was, for example, a keen amateur photographer and a very concentrated one. His photographs fall into only three categories: self-portraits, pictures of his paintings, and images of places that had particular emotional importance to him. Photography, in other words, was autobiography. Many of his self-portrait photographs show him in profile with his long nose and pouting lips, an aspect very difficult for a painter to capture using mirrors. Rather than using the pictures as a basis for paintings he used them instead of, as part of a larger fascination with self-portraiture (between 1900 and 1944 he painted himself 41 times), a multi-media composite that encompassed paintings, drawings, prints and photographs.