The Scream is one of those paintings that is crushed by the weight of its own success. Tattered versions of it hang on the walls of too many student bedrooms – an emblem of a kind of cultural aspiration (“Yeah, I like Munch. It’s just so raw, you know? One day I’ll probably go to the opera too. Would you like to smoke a joint and have sex with me?”).
The Scream, though, is conspicuous by its absence at the Tate’s new exhibition. The Norwegians won’t let their copies (there are four in total) out of their sight after two rather unfortunate incidents, involving shotguns and the one privately held version is hanging on the wall of someone who recently bought it for £80m (they probably don’t fancy lending it out). It’s probably for the best – it allows the other paintings speak for themselves, rather than act as fluffers for the howling money-shot.
If you’re looking for alienation and silent despair there is still plenty here; works from Munch’s Green Room series are particularly bleak, with claustrophobic figures penned in by their drab, sinister surroundings. His paintings are strikingly cinematic, with the restriction of space and tight composition demonstrating techniques that horror film directors would take decades to perfect.
Clever curation sees different versions of some of his more iconic works – including The Kiss and Vampire – hung on opposite walls, allowing you to pick out common themes and subtle differences. One such painting is Two Human Beings: The Lonely Ones (pictured above), featuring two figures, possibly newlyweds, standing apart on a beach. While they are crisply defined, their surroundings bulge and bleed. You can’t see their faces but, lost in their familiar world, you can bet they are screaming inside.
Two rooms dedicated to Munch’s amateur photography feel a little gratuitous – they are interesting enough morsels in the context of Munch’s body of work but individually they are no great shakes. They reminded me of a hipster’s Instagram page, all blurry snaps of unmade beds and self-taken portraits.
Overall, though, this retrospective shows that Munch is far more than the sum of his Screams.
First published in City A.M.