Munch at the Albertina: Isolation and despair, yes, but absolutely worth it

You may want to fortify yourself with a good lunch before going into this show. Have something cheerfully Viennese, and don’t order anything cold. It’ll be chilling enough once you get inside this rather – it has to
be said – relentless exhibition of bleak early lithographs and prints. But it is worth seeing.

Many of the works are haunting. Some – the wispy red Sick Child, for instance, or the vortex-like Moonlight series – are absorbingly beautiful; others make you want to pour yourself stiff drink to help you get through the rest of the day. At times you can hardly bear the desperate sense of isolation and, worse, the apparent
helplessness of these dozens upon dozens of static figures, each one utterly abandoned and utterly abandoning.

main.jartNever mind existential malaise; this is absolute despair. And emerging out of it, the famous Scream (1895) seems a natural evolution. It makes perfect sense. There’s no sudden start at the sight of it: there’s just a drained recognition of something that’s by now only too clear: the inescapable horror of it all.

Northern soul
It’s quite a relief to come across the face of a man tormented by jealousy, while the woman he presumably wants stands laughing and chatting with two other men in the background. The jealous man is far from happy, but at least he’s responding actively to a normal situation. You feel like saying something to him. You have the feeling he might say something back. Amid the dead souls all around him, his expressiveness seems extraordinary.

The works from The Frieze of Life presented here show the different stages of human life – birth, youth, maturity, old age, death – but not of Edvard Munch’s own life. Almost all of them were produced around or before the turn of the 20th century, when the artist was 40 at most (he lived to be 80). In 1908, Munch suffered the mental breakdown that had surely been in the making for decades, following the death of his mother and father, his brother and his beloved sister Sophie (The Sick Child), and the loss of his mistress, Tulla Larsen.

Munch was admitted to an institution, and the treatment he received there changed him profoundly; much of his subsequent work was markedly more optimistic in tone.

Almost nothing of this brighter later work is presented here. There is a self-portrait of 1912, scarred and thoughtful but by no means despairing; and the lovely, near-smiling woodcut Brigitte III of 1930 – who was Brigitte, we wonder? What did she mean to him? Did she, or others, bring him comfort in the end?

But the desolate works shown here were important steps within expressionism and toward abstraction. So do go and see them. Go alone. Take your time. Do some sage reflecting on life and love and loss. Just be sure to meet someone afterwards for a warm human encounter.

Through Jan 24, Albertina