Tate Modern has grown expert at news management. Its introduction to the Edvard Munch exhibition that has arrived from the Munch Museum in Oslo, pinned to the gallery wall, is a masterpiece of art-historical spin. It deserves to be quoted in full: “Munch is often presented in the context of the 1880s and 1890s. However, the majority of his work was produced in the 20th century, and the ways he reflected on the cultural and technological developments of his era show that he was a modern artist as much as a fin-de-siècle one.”
Masterly. I particularly admire the line that Munch is “often presented in the context of the 1880s and 1890s”. What that actually means is that most Munch exhibitions concentrate on his early work, because that was when he was good. The Vampire, Jealousy, Puberty and, of course, The Scream all date from the first half of his career. Unfortunately, a serious alcohol problem led to a mental breakdown, and for most of the 20th century, until his death in 1944, Munch churned out huge quantities of slapdash expressionism that nobody usually wants to show. Except the Munch Museum in Oslo, which is packed to the attic with half a century of the stuff.
So, when our masterly wall text tells us Munch “was a modern artist as much as a fin-de-siècle one”, what it means is: “We know he painted The Scream back in 1893, and that it captured perfectly the echoing terror of human existence, and all that, but what about the 50 years of art that followed? It can’t all be bad, can it?” Indeed it can’t. Neither is it noticeably more cheerful. The story usually popped out to explain Munch’s slapdash late style is that, after his breakdown, he was advised by his mind doctors to adopt a more positive approach, so his art grew more colourful, brighter, quicker. But that is not the story the Tate tries to slip past us here. Instead, we are presented with an argument centred on the dynamics of modernity. Munch, we are told, was influenced by the changing pace of his times: by photography and film; by the latest investigations of physics and medicine; by methods of mass reproduction. The loosening in his style, this show says, should be seen as the adoption of 20th-century rhythms.
It’s a superior piece of art-historical sophistry, and this selection is certainly not devoid of interest or moments of quality. Somehow, the Tate has managed to arrange Munch’s outpourings into a legible, even coherent journey. It’s pleasing to discover he never lost it all. But he definitely lost a lot. No amount of skilled presentation can transform the mass of wristy scramblings we find here into the equals of the haunting twilights for which he is renowned.
The Tate starts its journey cleverly by training the show’s gun sights on Munch himself. An opening room filled with restless self-portraits — paintings, woodcuts, photographs — introduces us to a target that keeps moving. He seems never to look the same in successive self-portraits. You can call it an eagerness to experiment. Or you can call it lurching about. What is certain is that we are in the presence of an artist whose eyes are superglued to his interior.
The second gallery contains most of the best paintings in the show, all dating from before his breakdown. The Kiss, from 1897, has two figures sucking at each other’s faces so fiercely that their separate heads have merged into a single gloop. Girls on the Bridge shows an anonymous huddle of schoolgirls turning their back on the viewer while they gossip: perhaps they are talking about you? Vampire, from 1893, has a naked redhead nuzzling the neck of a man in a suit: kissing or biting?
This is haunting art, painted with a palette on which paranoia, fear, desperation and loneliness have replaced the usual reds, greens and blues. The “old context” pictures are here because the Tate, in another smart display of exhibition subterfuge, has arranged a face-off between old and new versions of the same subject: the old on one wall, the new opposite. Munch’s strategy of producing different versions of the same image is presented as another sign of his modernity, a pictorial response to the age of mass reproduction. Yet it is also true that he gained much of his income in the second half of his career from paying exhibitions of his pictures, and that the crowds generally preferred to see his old stuff. In every contest of contexts, the old versions are better.
The thematic sections that follow do the usual Tate trick of dividing a big splodge into smaller splodges. One room deals with the influence of film and photography on Munch’s sense of space. True, the line of burly men striding towards you in Workers on Their Way to Work has obviously been transported from a newsreel. With terrible results. Where early Munch is an explorer of brooding psychic states, late Munch is a kind of crazy ice-skater whose paintwork zips about the canvas with barely a pause for breath. What speed. What thrust. What a lot of falling over.
More successful is a suite of particularly miserable interiors influenced by Munch’s involvement with the theatre. Instead of angry workers marching for jobs, we get gloomy couples torturing each other’s psyches in lonely rooms. Claustrophobic spaces, throbbing anxiety, relentless unhappiness — this feels like home territory. Another thematic cluster focuses on Munch’s interest in different forms of radiation. He was fascinated by both the proper science of x-rays and the bogus science of ectoplasmic exploration, and frequently confused the two. In a show featuring some clunky paintings, the most spectacularly clunky is surely The Sun, from 1911. Gazing across a fjord, Munch sees a nuclear sun exploding ecstatically above the horizon. The result belongs on the cover of a Bible in Salt Lake City, not in a retrospective of a serious modernist talent.
That said, one of art’s golden rules is that the late styles of artists are always loose and free and difficult to understand. There are certainly paintings to be found in this display that repay your scrutiny, particularly among the final self-portraits. If, however, you ever hear me claiming or, more likely, mumbling that The Sun is a good picture, then please send for an ambulance and a straitjacket. I’ll be needing them.