The Met Breuer’s exhibition doesn’t rewrite art history. It’s presented thematically, and it includes just 43 paintings, a substantially smaller cache than the Museum of Modern Art’s Munch retrospective had in 2006, or the Art Institute of Chicago’s show in 2009. More than a dozen of the works here, though, are self-portraits, and the central gallery in which they hang functions as an encapsulation of his whole career.
His first mature one, done in Oslo in 1886, pictures the 23-year-old artist as a solid, self-confident looker, lips pursed, eyes wandering. But he’s abraded the surface of the painting with a metal spatula, and so his neck appears gashed by vertical scuffs and scrapes — a scratchiness he would also employ seven years later in his stern, ghoulish “Self-Portrait Under the Mask of a Woman.” By 1903, naked in his summer studio in Asgardstrand, Munch was painting himself as a bundle of flesh swallowed up in thin brush strokes of burnt ocher and black, and lit only by fierce light from below.
The title clarifies any doubts: “Self-Portrait in Hell.” Yet compared with “The Scream” — a real outlier in Munch’s career, represented in this show by a lithograph of that tormented howler printed in Berlin in 1895 — “Self-Portrait in Hell” and its fellows step back from outward manifestations of distress. Though naked and aflame, Munch here appears quite at home in Hades-on-the-Oslofjord, and the broad strokes that constitute his face cohere into the emptiest of expressions.
Even with his clothes on — in the dapper “Self-Portrait With Cigarette” of 1895, or the alienated “Self-Portrait With a Bottle of Wine” of 1906, when Munch was struggling with alcoholism — this Norwegian painted himself in cool isolation, and by the new century, his face had begun to deform into downcast jumbles of loose, watery strokes that never quite coalesce. In two self-portraits of the ailing Munch from 1919-20, his facial features withdraw into drippy, hastily painted backgrounds that seethe with blue, green and mauve.
Munch’s last major self-portrait, which gives this show its title and is on loan from Oslo, has pride of place at the Met Breuer. “Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed” (1940-43), features the painter standing ramrod-straight, beside a grandfather clock whose wooden panels are painted with the same bold, vertical strokes Munch uses for his own baggy suit. His eyes are sunken. His mouth is nearly absent, as are the hands of the clock. To the right is a cot, covered with a bedspread whose crosshatched pattern has been rendered with stunningly free parallel strokes. Why finish a painting, Munch seems to reason, when you are caught between the clock and the bed: between the daily ravages of time and life’s inevitable conclusion?
I know I’m pushing hard the gloomy Nordic clichés — though not as hard as the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard does in an essay in this show’s catalog. Munch, though heartsick, was not a recluse; he was, in fact, a canny self-promoter who relished the opposition of Norway’s conservative establishment and used news media controversy to build an international career. But clichés take hold for a reason. Munch brooded and fretted, and though he worked nearly through the end of World War II, his art bristles with the romantic excesses of the late 19th century. (Friedrich Nietzsche, whom Munch painted in a posthumous portrait not included in this exhibition, was a major influence.) And in the other thematic galleries here, with such cheery themes as “Nocturnes” or “Sickness and Death,” we see Munch repeat motifs of regret and isolation over decades.
The death of his sister Sophie inspired six versions of “The Sick Child,” in which Munch painted a redheaded invalid sitting upright on her deathbed, her pallid face seen in profile against the pillow. Two of them are here: a version from 1896, roughened with the same scraping technique used in that early self-portrait, and another, from 1915, whose vertical brush strokes are bolder and more discordant. (The same theme inspired one of Munch’s greatest paintings: “Death in the Sick Room,” from 1893, in which a half-dozen mourners in a room of nauseating green look everywhere but at one another, while the ailing child sits hidden in an armchair.)
“Ashes” and “The Dance of Life,” two major early allegories of lust and human remoteness, are repainted a quarter-century later with brasher color and bolder outlines. The Met Breuer wants to insist that these more freely painted works from the 1910s onward have been overlooked, though that is an overstatement. The High Museum in Atlanta offered a late Munch show in 2002. MoMA’s 2006 show trod this ground, too, with far more paintings, as did the widely praised retrospective earlier this decade at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.
The estrangement continues at Scandinavia House, where the exhibition “The Experimental Self” presents Munch’s lesser-known photography — although the 50-odd images here are, regrettably, facsimiles and not original prints. Munch used the camera with an intimate, even playful informality, and relied on blurring effects and ornery cropping to capture the same discord he brought to painting and printmaking.
Many of the photographs here rhyme with paintings at the Met Breuer show. “Self-Portrait in Hell,” for one, is complemented at Scandinavia House by a nude self-portrait shot that same summer in Asgardstrand, Munch’s left arm cocked above his hip. A close-up selfie made while recumbent at his doctor’s office is called “Self-Portrait à la Marat” — a reference to the French revolutionary hero murdered in the bathtub, painted by Jacques-Louis David and messily by Munch, too, in 1907.
As much as the painted portraits, these photographic images of the artist rise to the level of what Munch called “self-scrutinies”: emotional but hard-edged, and pierced with a dread of modern life that has outlived the Modernist era. In Munch’s day, the dread came from within. Now, our fears lie outside — in dysfunctional algorithms, in a climate out of joint, in bombs triggered by unstable fingers. Munch’s alienated gaze on aging, illness and lost love can feel a little soppy if you are waylaid by the Nordic atmospherics. But scrutinize them as carefully as Munch scrutinized himself, and they offer a more substantial confession: that the social moorings we cling to may not be as firm as we think.