NOBODY IS GOING to walk away from the National Gallery of Art's exhibition of the work of Edvard Munch smiley-faced and starry-eyed. Not for nothing is the Norwegian artist's name associated with terror and despair; and the current display of 245 paints, prints and drawings on such themes as "Melancholy" and "Separation" shows why. What is gained by seeing so much of Munch's work in a single stroll is less the sense of the range of his work - though the range is there - than of the power of his obsessions. Compared to Munch's darkest moments, his famous "Scream" seems almost a relief.
Man's screams and "Anxiety" were not, in fact, the things that really tormented Munch. His fears went deeper - to the heart of a castaway world where people are merely, and solely, functional. An oil called "Inheritance" shows a mournful, though caring, mother, holding a baby figure of death in her lap, the creature red-eyed, syphilitic, with a head like a skull, lying in a shroud. Born to die, says the artist, who actually said something even more hopeless: "We do not die - the world takes leave of us."
So we see an abstracted "Kiss," in which the faces of the lovers fuse into one, and are without features, save one ear. Or "Jealousy," where even Satan seems merely a functionary in his melancholy victory over Adam and Eve. "The Sick Child" of so many of Munch's paintings was his little sister, who died at the age of 13. But in Munch's most desperate imagination, the sick child is also modern life, filled, as his paintings are filled, with dazed and bewildered people staring out with round, cartoon eyes, from a backdrop of hospital green.
Yet Munch was clearly a romantic. Driven to discover the meanings of futility, his own drive contradicted the idea of futility; and there is something terribly beautiful in the vacancies he explored. Of all his themes, his most perplexing was himself, which is probably why he did so many self portraits. In most of them he appears as blank and functional as his other subjects, and at least as haunted.