Edvard Munch, at the Courtauld Galleries, is a powerful revelation. It could hardly be otherwise, in one sense, since most of these paintings have never been seen in this country before. They were bought in the 19th century by the Norwegian industrialist Rasmus Meyer, who owned grain mills in the coastal city of Bergen and was determined that the local people should have as good a chance to look at the country’s greatest living artist as anyone in Oslo. And there they have remained ever since, in a city surrounded by fjords and facing Shetland across the cold waters of the North Sea.
But what stuns is not just the unfamiliarity of the paintings so much as the sudden day-to-night shifts. You see Munch’s art evolving at exceptional speed, and with unusual clarity, in Meyer’s judicious collection. There are only 18 works, spanning a couple of decades, from the 1880s to 1909, when Munch was 46, but every one of them is a masterpiece of energetic and theatrical miserabilism.
Except for one: an early painting deliberately positioned by the entrance as a kind of embarkation point. Spring Day on Karl Johan shows Oslo’s main street as if painted by some other artist attempting a breezy hybrid of Pissarro and Seurat, in 1890. Not a single mark looks anything like a Munch. Yet the same street, depicted from the opposite end only two years later, is a classic nightmare of skeletal faces in strange hats, pressing towards us at dusk, gaslight flaring in the distant windows.
One figure stands apart, a black silhouette in the gloom – the artist’s characteristic alter ego. The painting is generally associated with a passage from his illustrated diary, in which Munch depicts himself as a loner, infatuated with a woman for whom he searches the streets in vain. You see his shadow fall across the dark garden in House in Moonlight, a sinister shape almost touching the feet of a woman visible only as a long white apron, the rest of her obscured by the midnight blue paint. The night sky is an eerie and arsenical green. “When the moon is hidden by clouds,” Munch wrote, “it is so secretive.” The sense is of a doomed and illicit affair.
This is one of a group of paintings inspired by the seaside town of Åsgårdstrand, where Munch had a summer house. Here, the midnight sun casts its half-light along the shore, turning the sea into molten colour and setting up dreamy illusions. In Moonlight on the Beach, from 1892, the beach and the bordering forest recede sharply into the distance, converging on a vanishing point directly beneath a yellow moon (think of the geometry in The Scream). Hanging beneath it, like a string of jewels, are four more pale, shining moons.
The Åsgårdstrand paintings transfix. Here is Munch’s sister Inger seated among glowing rocks on the shore, her white dress incandescent in the gloaming, the paint nubbed and thick as a Rembrandt. Behind her, the sea floats in drifts of lavender, mauve and indigo. The painting captivates, and is made to haunt: Inger looks deathly pale in her lunar dress, a form as distinct and primordial as the rocks.
The same shore becomes a stage for Munch’s celebrated cycle of paintings known as The Frieze of Life. In Melancholy, a man sits alone on the darkling sand, head in hand, brooding and anxious, as the beach undulates away towards a life elsewhere. Woman in Three Stages, set on the same timeless strand, shows a virginal bride (possibly abandoned?), one of Munch’s naked seductresses with crackling red hair, and a gaunt-faced figure in black whose features may be ravaged by drugs or the syphilis Munch so obsessively feared. All that separates her from the spectral presence of a man, lodged in the far right of the painting like a skeleton in a closet, is a skein of dark red paint that resembles nothing so much as bloody ectoplasm.
The show is so spaciously presented, and so carefully lit, as to give the eye and mind plenty of time to take in Munch’s extraordinary technique – the lustrous pearl and silver strokes, the insistent whorls, the seeping stains and haloed heads. You start to notice the uppermost marks, sketched in lightly to indicate hairline cracks and rickety promontories; the way hair takes on a life of its own, undulating in psychedelic swirls around female faces, lassoing men, harnessing couples miserably together.
Above all, there is Munch’s sensational cropping. Stand in the second gallery, and figures appear to be marching straight at you, looming alarmingly close to the picture plane. Strangest of all is the blue-eyed girl who appears to have walked right up to the painter – and the edge of the frame. Behind her, three boys are lying on their fronts in the summer street; have they bullied her? She stands between the man and the boys, defiant, insistently frontal, and cropped at the waist, giving him an accusatory stare. Her sky-blue eyes are depicted without pupils, the colour almost unnervingly intense. In other paintings, eyes are just piercing black dots; sometimes there is no nose, no eyebrows or mouth. In Man and Woman, the averted face of the female figure is reduced to a single Cyclopean eye beneath an inferno of fiery red hair.
It is all going to hell – or is it? Munch’s art puts on such a spectacular performance of anguish, isolation and all-round human misery that you cannot but relish the show. The last painting here is a 1909 self-portrait, made after treatment for a breakdown following years of drunken paranoia. It is an electrifying image – all broken lines of pure colour darting like horizontal interference across a screen: vermilion, violet, cobalt and yellow. Yet Munch himself sits calmly among them, upright and composed in a neat three-piece suit; his force of mind, and art, unaltered.
It is a testimony to their relationship that Meyer was able to buy the self-portrait directly from Munch the year it was made. But there were no more purchases after that. The collector died a few years later, during the first world war. Munch lived on for almost another three decades, still painting through the second world war until his death at the age of 80, in 1944.