This new show of prints at the British Museum in Bloomsbury, opening to the press, appropriately enough, on a day of high wind-chill, light drizzle, and general elemental gloom, lays bare the unalloyed misery of being Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norway’s most celebrated artistic export. If you have never peeled a print of The Scream off the dank, buckling wall of a student bedsit in Halifax or Dewsbury, you have never been alive in this world.
It is almost a display of prints alone – nearly fifty of them, spanning a period of about thirty years – and so the general misery is not quite as exuberantly and colourfully visible as it would have been if this had been a show of his paintings. There are some paintings here, but not many. Prints tend to be relatively small, so the gloom we are a witness to, in frame after frame, feels even more pent and claustrophobic than ever. We are truly alone with it. We can look and, in looking, nurture our own gloom too about this, that and the other: the essential vampirism of womankind; how a love-embrace is always, finally, a death embrace; how, when we look at someone else, we are only really looking at ourselves, etc, etc. And the gloom and the locked-in claustrophobia of it all are delicately enhanced by the colour scheme devised by the ragingly depressive munchophiliacs on the design team: black floors and grey walls.
Why was Edvard Munch so consistently miserable? The death of loved ones far too early? The reading of Nietzsche? Making designs for Ibsen’s Ghosts? Falling in with Strindberg? Falling out with Strindberg? Over-loving the bohemian crowd? Boozing until he dropped? Being born Edvard Munch in a pinchingly small place in Norway? There are always too many reasons for things being as they are.
His women are almost too terrible to behold. Their hair spills everywhere, a net of entrapment. Their faces are pale as the white flour that gets flung about the kitchen. They are thin-faced, creepy, almost absent. They seem to waft away from you even as you go to seize them, boldly, with your mock- innocent eyes. They hurry you grave-ward.
This is a must-see show for anyone who is teetering on the brink of an unfathomable sea.
Edvard Munch: love and angst is at the British Museum from 11 April until 21 July, 2019. A fully illustrated catalogue, Edvard Munch: love and angst (£30), has been published by Thames and Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum.