As a tongue-tip probes the broken tooth, repeatedly revisiting the exposed nerve, so the half-crazed Norwegian master Edvard Munch mined his private agonies. "Symbols and Images," his wrenching retrospective, opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art, is an exhibition of terrible intensity. Munch was 80 when he died in 1944, and all his life he hurt.
None of his pictures is pretty. Their outlines writhe, their colors scream, and the people on his Oslo streets wear masks of dumb-struck terror. He often painted coffins. In memories of childhood, in images of love - in those zones where other painters seek the comfort of the beautiful - Munch found dread and grief. He thought childhood meant sickness, he equated sex with death.
"I paint not what I see but what I saw," he wrote. What he chose to show us was the horror of his past.
The story of his life is enough to make a therapist shudder. His mother died when he was 5. Munch was at the deathbad. Tuberculosis killed his favorite sister, Sophie, when he was 13. Later, in his journal (he called it both "The Tree of Life" and "The Notes of a Madman") he merged his sister's death with a vision of his own: "When I was 13 years old I lay there. Blood trickled out of my mouth. Fever raced in my veins. Fear screamed within me. Now, now during the next moment, you shall stand in front of your judge and you shall be doomed for all eternity."
Still later, when he tried his hand at color lithography and etching, he would explore each new technique by sketching, almost automatically, his dying sister's head. Even as he loved, he loathed. His younger sister, Laura, spent her life in an asylum - no wonder madness, lust and death are blended in Munch's art.
"The twin angels of death and insanity," he wrote, "pursued me from the cradle." He drank too much. He spent two months in an asylum. Once, quarreling with his fiance, he picked up a pistol and shot at his left hand, he was unhurt, but he reviled her ever after.
Was Edvard Munch a psychcopath? The viewer is not sure; there is cunning in his madness. His graphics are so subtle, his images of dread so carefully distilled, that his art, beneath its wildness, seems rationally contrived. His suffering seems purposeful. There is, within his anguish, something of the conscious artifice of punk. Munch knows what he is doing. As an athlete feigns injury to lull the competition, so Munch accents his craziness to intensify his art.
Munch was born in Norway to a family of scholars. He was an educated and sophisticated man. At first he seems sui generis - but look a little longer. Once the shock subsides, the viewer sees that Edvard Munch bared his hurt - and painted - in intentional accordance with the spirit of his time.
"These pictures are done in seriousness - in suffering," he wrote, as if to say his horror was like no one else's. Yet other artists of the time, whose lives were not at all like his, were expressing that same awful mix - of death and hate and dread, of childhood recollections, sexuality and modness - in their late Victorian art.
In sophisticated circles in Paris and Berlin, Munch's works were already known when Sigmund Freud, in Vienna, was publishing his first papers on hysteria. Henrik Ibsen, Munch's compatriot, had shocked much of Europe by treating in his dramas such subjects as syphilis and lust (one painting in the Munch show is "The Syphilitic Child," and there are many Scandinavians - the novelist Knut Hamsun, who spoke of "the unconsciousness," the playwright August Strindberg, were pouring their own visions of obsessive private passion into their works of art.
Munch's passion and gloom were not his alone. Hamlet shared them. Soren Kierkegaard, the Dane, wrote "The Concept of Dread," and "Fear and Trembling," and "The Sickness Unto Death," before Munch was born. And Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker, has a place in the tradition, too.
The image of the femme fatale who haunts this exhibition - part lover and part killer, part virgin and part harlot - is not one Munch invented. Scholar Robert Rosenblum, in his catalog introduction, notes that she appears as well in the Victorian pictures of Beardsley and Rosetti. Munch, when still a young man, traveled restlessly and widely (as had Strindberg and Ibsen). He knew Gauguin in Paris (one sees that in Munch's colors). And the Norwegian's writhing landscapes similarly recall Gauguin's flame-like trees.
The few repeated images that dominate this show - the life-draining madonna, the lovers without faces, the sickroom and the deathbed, the scream, the brooding man - do not flow from the Munch's past alone. We know them from Kierkegaard to Beardsley. They predict art yet to come, that of Kakoschka, and the Berman expressionists, and even Francis Becon. Munch's graphics are superb. His paintings, particularly his later works, seem hasty, almost hectic. His work is now on view at the National Gallery of Art not because it is beautiful, but because in pain and trembling, he managed to create images we recognize as icons of his time.
Though his prints are widely known, his wildly colored paintings are underrepresented in American museums. Of the 245 paintings, prints and drawings here, almost all have come from Norway. Many of his old have never been abroad.
The exhibit's installation has been well designed by Gil Ravenel and Mark Leithauser. Wisely, it's arranged not by chronology, but themes. Single galleries are given to The Kiss, The Tree of Knowledge, The Sick Child, The Madonna, and to other themes that Munch explored throughout his long and troubled life. A film about the artist will be offered at the Gallery on Nov. 18 and 25. "Summernight," a ballet inspired by his work, also will be performed there, in the East Building's auditorium, on Friday (at 5, 6, adn 7 p.m.) and on Saturday (2, 3, and 4 p.m.) "Edvard Munch; Symbols and Images" closes Jan. 19.