At the start of the new exhibition, “Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye,” at Tate Modern in London, you encounter a blurry fragment of film in which Munch himself descends some steps and peers at the camera. He was a hard fellow to get into focus.
A prolific and long-lived artist (he was born in 1863, 10 years after Van Gogh, and died in 1944), Munch is largely known for one uncharacteristic masterpiece: “The Scream.” Much of his life’s work is in the -- for most of us remote -- Munch Museum in Oslo. Many areas, especially of his later output, have scarcely been explored except by intrepid scholars.
The Tate show, which opened yesterday, offers some novel perspectives on the man and his art. It can’t be said, however, that it produces a sharp image of either. On the contrary, like a number of the exhibits, the overall impression is fuzzy.
The exhibition leaves the crucial question -- whether the artist really was good -- undecided. There are some powerful paintings on show, and others that look like casual studio discards. Still, the show also offers some revelations.
This is Munch without “The Scream,” but it introduces us to Munch, the video artist or, at least, pioneer and amateur filmmaker. There are also a number of his photographs, technically erratic, but a lot less cack-handed than his movies (which resemble those made by toddlers let loose with an iPhone).
He was, like many 19th-century painters, fascinated by photography and optical technology. A room is devoted to the idea that the wide-angle vistas in many of his pictures were inspired, partly at least, by the lens.
Even with Munch’s still photos, though, it’s difficult to disentangle accidents from intentional effects. “The Yard at 30B Pilestredet” (c.1902) is smudged through double-exposure or camera shake. This was where Munch’s mother died in 1868, when he was 5 years old. As the catalog suggests, the image seems as if it is seen through tears, though the blur may be a mistake.
Munch probably liked the phantoms that were produced by photographic errors.
“There is something in my pictures that I cannot overcome,” he confided after a stay in a clinic for nervous illnesses between 1908 and 1909, “something that is always transparent and ghostly.” That emotional specter -- fear, death, sexual anxiety -- is the true subject of his art.
Another point about Munch’s oeuvre is made clear by the first and last sections of the show, both devoted to self-portraits: His work tends to be all about himself. There are numerous oils, lithographs and snaps of Munch in his studio, stark naked in his garden, in bed. This preoccupation with self is shared by Munch’s admirers (compare Tracy Emin). That isn’t necessarily a criticism, yet it is a limitation.
Munch went on being obsessed by Munch for a long time. He didn’t necessarily decline. One of his last works “Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-43) is one of his most powerful. As another section demonstrates, he repeated certain compositions time and time again over decades.
Perhaps Munch did this because he was emotionally fixated on the subjects or because, as the catalog theorizes, it was a useful source of cash. The first version was usually the best.
Munch’s later work often seems scrappy and patchy, like this exhibition. “Munch: The Modern Eye” does leave you, though, with the feeling that there’s plenty more to be discovered about this elusive artist.
“Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye” is at Tate Modern, London, through Oct. 14. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend, Jeremy Gerard on theater and Lewis Lapham on history.