THINGS GOING suspiciously smoothly for you lately? Too much lilt in your heart and spring in your step? Well, dance on down to the National Gallery of Art's Edvard Munch show and you'll sober right up. It's the ultimate guilt trip.
Munch (1863-1944), it has often been observed, is the artist that Freud would have been if Freud had drawn pictures rather than confessions and conclusions. Munch is our guide into the gloomy depths of the human soul, a Diogenes whose lantern casts darkness, doubt and despair, an implacable Ahab in search of the night wail.
Munch knows those bad things we're thinking about, and how bad we feel about it, and how good feeling bad feels, and how bad it feels to feel good about feeling bad, and so forth. We're talking sex here mainly, but this is a family newspaper and anyway, you knew that.
Assembled by Washington's Sarah G. Epstein and Lionel C. Epstein, the collection is said to be the finest outside of Europe. Happily, the hundred-odd works have been promised to the National Gallery, which means our children and grandchildren will always have access to the sorts of etchings an Edwardian rake would invite an innocent young thing up to his digs to see.
Munch's cruel imagery shows he didn't think much of women -- although he thought about them incessantly -- and that he thought even less of men. His eye for the curve of a young woman's breast is as knowing as his eye for the sag of an aging woman's breast is unsparing. But if his women are often evil, Munch's men are dupes and pawns, objects of ridicule who are getting just the sort of treatment they deserve. But Munch was no mere misanthropist, he blasphemed the Madonna as well, back when blasphemy still was possible.
So why do so many people come out of this exhibition smiling? Well, for one thing, Munch's work is delightfully titillating, even if it makes one feel good badly. For another, Munch's techniques are so varied and masterful it's fascinating to watch as his etchings, lithographs and woodcuts progress through various states. And he's such a gloomy Gus that after a while you have to smile. Munch was a Norwegian bachelor, and brings to mind Garrison Keillor's hilariously dour Norwegian bachelor farmers.
But the big reason probably is that we're all Munch's children. Some academics assert that Munch was a lone wolf who dropped off the artistic bus before it arrived at any major school, and that his influence therefore dwindled away. This will draw a smile from anyone who's ever visited a head shop, watched avant-garde and/or pornographic animation, or read such horror comics as "Tales From the Crypt."
Munch is still around, he's just underground, still burrowing through our rich and fetid subsoil. Heh heh.