If exhibitions of prints tend to feel second best to shows of painting and sculpture, Edvard Munch’s biggest show of prints in 45 years – with 83 works, 50 from Oslo’s Munch Museum – is the exception. It shows the artist at his most expressive, taking us into a mind-set of untrammelled passion and intensity. His most famous work The Scream, represented here as a black-and-white lithograph, is the merest taster.
Determined to explode through the staid conventions of 19th-century Norwegian art, Munch, born in 1863, experimented with printmaking from early in his career, attempting to create images of “real people” who were “being, feeling, suffering and loving.” Rather than smoothing the evidence of the various printmaking processes – wood-cut, lithography and etching – politely into the background of his images, as was standard practice at the time, Munch left these physical traces powerfully visible in images that outraged polite society.
In his wood-cut The Kiss, 1902, the broad grain of the wood weaves through the background of the image, so that the black-clad couple appear bound in a primal flow. In the smaller etched version, the couple appear naked in a stark room, their faces merging, as though they’re consuming each other in a swirling mass of minutely fine lines that carries a powerful erotic charge.
And yet the spectre of Lutheran guilt looms continually in his art. In the controversial lithograph Madonna, 1895, the soft contours of the woman’s body are masterfully evoked by scraping into the black crayon marks to subtly blur the edges, while the decorative border conveys a troubling ambivalence on the subject of sex that stops us in our tracks even today.
The tormented face in the foreground of Jealousy, 1896, isn’t Munch, but his close friend the poet Stainislaw Przybvszewski. Munch, it is believed, is the figure in the background cavorting with Przybvszewski’s naked wife Dagny Juell, who was later killed by a jealous lover. It’s hardly surprising the artist looks a wreck in Self-Portrait with Bottle of Wine, 1906, created in the aftermath of a drink-fuelled breakdown. Yet far from appearing a mere wallow in self-created misery, the scene is so masterfully atmospheric it’s hard to believe it’s been drawn onto a lithographic stone in crayon.
By the time we get to The Scream, it’s apparent how much the various painted versions owe to Munch’s experiences as a printmaker. The rhythmic flow of the sky and sea surrounding the startled figure as it perceives the “scream in nature”, clearly evokes the rippling grain of his woodcuts. As with the various paintings included in the show for reference, including the very well-known The Sick Child, 1907, from Tate, which hangs beside a lithographic version of the same image, it feels as though the prints have the edge at every turn.
This show’s title doesn’t mislead. Munch’s inimitable blend of passion, guilt and anguish-ridden social commentary remains as potent as ever.