Edvard Munch was a great artist until 1908 when he had a nervous breakdown and spent eight months in a clinic. After that, he was only a good one.
That’s the traditional view. The Pompidou Center in Paris tries to disprove it.
Oddly enough, “Edvard Munch -- The Modern Eye” is the second show in Paris devoted to the Norwegian artist within two years. Before, he had been almost completely neglected; his works are mostly absent from French museums.
What the two shows have in common is that both failed to secure Munch’s most celebrated painting, “The Scream.” That said, the Pompidou overview is more substantial than the sketchy exhibition at the Pinacotheque in the spring of 2010.
Munch (1863-1944) was a tormented man. His mother and elder sister died of tuberculosis when he was still a child, and his despondent father became pathologically pious.
The artist never married and kept suspecting his cooks of trying to lure him into matrimony with their sauces. Yet in his most anguished years he produced the works that made him famous: “The Sick Girl” (1886), “The Scream” (1893), “Madonna” (1894) and “The Girls on the Bridge” (1901).
The Pompidou Center show breaks up the chronology of Munch’s life by grouping the 140 works -- paintings, engravings, drawings, photographs and sculptures -- around themes. This makes sense because Munch, almost obsessively, returned to the same subjects.
One of his favorites was himself, mostly in unflattering situations -- in Hell, surrounded by bottles (Munch was a serious drinker), as a hollow-eyed night owl or stricken with the Spanish flu.
“Don’t you smell it?” he asked a friend to whom he was showing the flu portrait. “Smell what?” asked the friend. “Don’t you see that I’m about to putrefy?” Munch replied.
The self-portraits make up one of the 12 sections in the exhibition. It also includes photographs.
Like Bonnard and other painters of his generation, Munch loved to use the camera, a Kodak Bull’s-Eye No.2, in preparing his canvases. Several of his best-known paintings, such as “The Sin” (1902) or “Weeping Girl” (1907), are based on photographs.
Another section reminds us of Munch’s collaboration with Max Reinhardt, the Austrian stage director. Munch designed the sets for Reinhardt’s productions of “Ghosts” and “Hedda Gabler” at the Berliner Kammerspiele.
This was in 1906 and 1907, shortly before he went to Copenhagen to seek medical help for his mental troubles. Munch shared more than one trait with Ibsen’s morbid characters.
At the age of 67, a hemorrhage in his right eye gravely affected his vision. Over a period of several months, Munch methodically recreated, in paintings and drawings, what he saw through his bad eye.
After the frantic address changes of his first 50 years, he had settled in a country house near Oslo. After his death, the city inherited some 1,000 canvases and more than 4,000 works on paper. They are the basis of the Munch Museum, the main lender to the Paris exhibition.
How about the show’s thesis that Munch, the 20th-century artist, is in no way inferior to the 19th-century avant-gardist? It doesn’t hold water.
Although his later canvases are never uninteresting and sometimes inspired, they remain more conventional than his early masterpieces.
In the Copenhagen clinic, Munch may have found some peace of mind. Yet it seems that, with his psychosis, he also lost some of his creative power.
“Edvard Munch -- L’Oeil Moderne” is at the Pompidou Center, Paris, through Jan. 9, 2012, and then travels to Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (Feb. 9-May 13) and Tate Modern in London (June 28-Oct. 14). The exhibition is supported by PwC and Statkraft AS. Information: http://www.centrepompidou.fr or +33-1-4478-1233.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)