In 1892 -- following three successive grants from his government -- an exhibition of work by the Norwegian modernist Edvard Munch opened with a succe`s de scandale in Berlin, where it was deemed "gutter art" and promptly closed by the artists' group that had sponsored it.

Among the offensive subjects: "The Day After," a loosely clothed woman passed out on a rumpled bed, with some empty bottles suggesting a night of debauchery. "There is no point wasting words on Munch's paintings, as they have nothing at all to do with art," bleated a critic.

The scandal made Munch famous, and over the next two years he was invited to show in nine different German cities, as well as in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Chicago, where he sent five paintings to the Columbian Exposition.

"Unbelievable that something as innocent as a painting can make such a commotion," Munch wrote to his aunt. "You asked me if I feel nervous and depressed -- I have gained six pounds and have never felt so well."

In 1894, in a frenzy of work, Munch took up printmaking for the first time, doubtless to take advantage of both widening interest in his work and the opportunity to increase much-needed income. That year he produced eight etchings and drypoints for his first published portfolio, as well as his first three lithographs, among them his now iconic image "The Scream."

More than 700 different prints would ensue during Munch's long life (1863-1944), a body of work that ranks among the finest in 20th-century graphic art. And now, to see the greatest among them, one need only go to the National Gallery of Art West Building, where "Edvard Munch: Master Prints From the Epstein Family Collection" goes on view today.

Made up of 94 etchings, lithographs and woodcuts representing the finest impressions of Munch's major works (along with their most interesting variations), the show was selected by National Gallery senior curator Andrew Robison from more than 250 in the extraordinary collection formed by Sarah G. Epstein and Lionel C. Epstein of Washington, D.C.

Starting in the early '60s, when Munch prints could be found for as little as a few hundred dollars, the Epsteins -- she a social worker, he a lawyer -- became more and more enthralled with this artist they had both come to love, independently, when they were students in Boston. Eventually joined in their enthusiasm by their five children (who named their dog Munch), the Epsteins by the '80s had assembled, with a good deal of study and research, what is now widely recognized as the finest collection of Munch prints outside Europe. It has since been promised to the National Gallery.

The exhibition begins with the earliest etchings, among them "The Day After," that culprit image, now so tame, which -- like nearly all of Munch's prints -- follows an earlier painting of the same theme and format. They all deal with love and the pain of love, attraction and separation, jealousy and loneliness, coming of age, illness and death -- themes he would continue to pursue in endless variations.

Two early etchings titled "The Sick Child," followed by three hand-colored lithographs of the same title, are especially poignant here, for they reveal the intensely personal nature of Munch's image-making. Based on recollections of his dying sister, Sophie, propped up in a chair, her frail profile set against the white of a pillow, they recall not only her death at age 15, but Munch's own brush with death just a year earlier, and the death of his mother when he was 5, all struck with tuberculosis.

Illness haunted not only Munch's work, but his life, and because the family was so plagued -- also by mental illness and, possibly, alcoholism, which he suffered -- he and Sophie made a childhood pact that they would never have children. "I have always put my art above everything else," Munch later wrote. "Most often I feel a woman would block my way. I decided at an early age to remain unmarried. Because of inherited tendencies to illnesses, both from my father and from my mother, I always felt it would be a crime for me to marry."

And he never did, despite pleas from various lovers, the most important of whom turn up in his art.

Though etching was the first graphic medium Munch tried, it was lithography and woodcut that better suited his intense and expressive style, and in which he reached the peak of his achievements. Those peaks are all here, among them "The Shriek" and "Anxiety," and a handful of portraits of contemporaries, including himself, along with playwrights August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, who lend a sense of his cultural context. That context also included the young Sigmund Freud, whose ideas -- if not his face -- pervade this show.

And here is Munch's universal Woman in all her ambiguous guises: as saint/mother/lover in "Madonna" (originally titled "Loving Woman"), as green-eyed vixen/child in "Sin," all installed so that the color shifts and variations can be studied from afar, in stunning juxtapositions.

Man, however, as often in the works of Munch, is seen as the hapless victim, kneeling to place his head on the lap of a red-haired "Vampire" about to go to work on his neck, or slouching in despair in the aftermath of love while the woman stands erect, seemingly in triumph, in a powerful print titled "Ashes II." It is a posture one soon tires of in Munch, along with a few other mannerisms, notably long, symbolically entangling hair.

The later prints, at the end of the show, have their ups and downs -- especially after 1907, when Munch had a breakdown, took the cure and subsequently seems to have gained sobriety and lost his edge. There are exceptions, notably "To the Forest" and "Girls on the Pier." But one of the glories of this exhibition (and collection) is how vividly it illustrates the evolution of certain images over the years to their ultimate expression -- not an easy trick when you're buying prints in the open market more than a half century after they were created.

From the start, Munch took his themes from the specific to the realm of the universal by means of simplification, something he could do especially well in the reductive medium of woodcut. In "The Kiss," for example, the early etching, from 1895, shows two well-defined nude figures embracing in front of a window, through which we see details of another building. Three years later Munch made a woodcut of this image, gradually eliminating some, then nearly all, detail from the carved blocks, and ultimately merging the two figures into a single, highly charged form, which he then printed against a background of pure wood grain.

In other prints he made other sorts of changes, often applying different colors (sometimes with a woodblock, sometimes with a brush), sometimes simply changing the color of the paper. As a result, many of his prints are, in fact, unique.

Most stunning of all such variations is the trio of color lithographs of "The Sick Child," based on the aforementioned early etchings. All were printed in 1896, but each has been totally transformed by the application of varying amounts of red paint, watercolor or ink, as if Munch were gradually turning up the heat under the image, as the intensity of the death cough increased during his sister's dying hours. Anyone convinced that they've seen it all as far as Munch is concerned should look hard at these works.

Rejecting both impressionism and realism, Munch absorbed various other influences during his student forays to Berlin and Paris, including the sinuous calligraphies of art nouveau and the flattened patternings of Gauguin. But in the end he was a stylistic loner, which may account for the fact that he has never been written into the litanies on modern art. More and more, however, his contribution to the German expressionist woodcut -- specifically the use of rough cutting as a mode of direct expression -- seems clear.

Now divorced, and with her children grown, Sarah (a k a Sally) Epstein, an active family planning advocate, has become widely known for her biographical writings and lectures on Munch, which have contributed a good deal to demystifying the life of an artist who might easily disappear into a shroud of myth. Her book, "The Prints of Edvard Munch: Mirror of His Life," published by Oberlin College, is invaluable on the subject.

She has also written a very personal introduction to the National Gallery catalogue, in which she reveals how deeply she identifies with Munch's work, comparing her own life to those of the women he so often depicted, symbolically, in three stages: innocence, maturity and loneliness.

"Munch's life has always been central to my involvement with the collection," says Epstein. "What struck me 40 years ago was his ability to express so much of what he had lived. I know that many people are shocked by the powerful images of grief, jealousy, anxiety and loneliness on my walls. My art-loving mother expressed her surprise that I could live with so much depression."

But Epstein doesn't see it that way. "I find his images moving, but not depressing," she says, " ... every word and every trace is significant to me."

"I have tried to clarify life and its meaning for myself," Munch once wrote. "I also intended to help others explain life for themselves."

And so, apparently, he has.

Today at 4 p.m., University of Chicago art history professor Reinhold Heller will give a free lecture on Munch in the National Gallery East Building auditorium. After the exhibition closes here Sept. 3, it will travel to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Atlanta and Memphis. Statoil, the national oil company of Norway, is corporate sponsor.