Chiefly famous for his painting The Scream, Edvard Munch was a long-lived and prolific artist whose later work is little known in Britain, writes Terry Grimley...
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is one of those artists whose work has never been widely dispersed: if you want to see it in depth, you usually need to go to Oslo.
But for the next two months a significant part of the collections of the city's Munch Museum can be found much closer to home, at the Royal Acdemy in London, in Munch by Himself, a major exhibition devoted to the artist's self-portraits.
Though Munch rivals Van Gogh as one of late 19th century art's great depressives, this did not result in his premature death. Born in 1863, he died at the age of 80 in 1944, when Norway was under German occupation. The Nazis had cleansed German museums of Munch's " degenerate" art before the war.
Throughout his working life Munch regularly treated himself as a subject, creating a long series of self-interrogating works in the Rembrandt tradition. The earliest painting in the RA show is from 1882, the latest, imprecisely dated, from 1940-44.
In fact, so comprehensive a picture do these works build up of Munch's career that it is possible to forget that it is a themed show and that other aspects of his work are excluded, like the seminal Sick Child works, portraits of others and landscapes (one of which is included because it features the painter's shadow).
For connoisseurs of circa-1900 erotic morbidity, the show is unmissable. After three artstudenty but by no means uninteresting portraits from the 1880s we are plunged straight into the troubled world of Munch's uneasy sexual relationships, culminating in such astonishing images as the Madonna, a haloed femme fatale framed by a decorative border of wriggling sperm.
Images like this, contemporary with the famous The Scream (an early version of this places it in the line of self-portraits) establish a linkage of sex-birth-death, relentless and indifferent, which drains man of his free will - an idea made explicit in Vampire, in which a woman sinks her teeth into a helpless man's neck. Having devised his images Munch treated them as archetypes, working them over and over in paintings, drawings and prints.
Clearly Munch's relationships with women were not easy. But then much of this comes with the intellectual spirit of the age, giving a more artistically advanced expression to images taken more or less ready-made from the cabinet of horrors which is European Symbolism, a movement still scarcely visible in this country. The Self Portrait with Cigarette, painted in 1895 when Munch was living in Berlin, suggests the possible influence of the German Symbolist Franz von Stuck.
There is an interesting suggestion that to some extent Munch's paranoid attitude came secondhand from his friend, the playwright August Strindberg. But if so it was certainly fuelled at first hand by his stormy relationship with Tulla Larsen, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant who pursued him around Europe. This came to an abrupt end in 1902 with a heated argument during which he shot himself in his left hand.
This event prompted the powerful series of paintings on the theme of the Death of Marat, in which a male figure lying on a bed is juxtapopsed with a nude female figure who stands erect and triumphant. It is interesting to cross-refer these to the slightly later Camden Town Murder paintings by Munch's close contemporary Sickert.
As the first decade of the 20th century advanced, Munch's drinking increased and he moved closer to breaking point. The crisis came in 1908 when he checked into Professor Jacobson's clinic in Copenhagen. Jacobson apparently used electric shock treatment - there is a fascinating pen and ink drawing showing this, with the inscription "Professor Jacobson Electrifies the Famous Painter Munch". Contrary to popular modern prejudice, the treatment was successful and - I used to think - Munch lived happily ever after, at the trifling cost of a drastic drop in the intensity of his work.
That opinion has to be revised in the light of the exhibition, which takes us into much less familiar territory after 1908. By now the work has shed its Symbolist trappings and, his brushwork having loosened considerably since 1900, the paintings have the broadly modernist, post-Van Gogh look of their time.
Munch's self-absorption continues but in a more objective spirit. It never seems to have become a happy life - a picture of himself caught, snapshot-like, on the streets of Bergen in 1916 suggests his sense of isolation from the everyday - and as the years pass a looming sense of mortality begins to dominate. Death is no longer treated through the symbolism of bones, but is felt in the bones.
It is difficult to judge these later stages of Munch's career, where the self-portrait theme perhaps implies a greater sense of morbidity than would be the case if there was a wider cross-section of subjects. But some of the later work is impressive - particularly the Artist and Model series from the early 1920s, which has a quite different feel to Munch's earlier man-and-woman subjects.
Above all it brings home how prolific Munch was, and how little we are likely to know his work if we haven't made the pilgrimage to Oslo.
* Munch by Himself is at the Royal Academy, Picadilly, London until Dec 11 (Sat-Thur 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-10pm); Admission £8, with various concessions for children, students, 60-plus and income support.
Details 0207 300 8000, or visit www.royalacademy.org.uk.