Hurrying away from the body in the road, the button-eyed murderer looks surprised by how easy it all was. He is heading our way, his eyes fixed on something only he can see. The painting is as quick and careless as the crime itself. But this is also what is so good about Edvard Munch’s 1919 Murder on the Road. There’s not much expression there, the violence already forgotten. It is the record of a man in a rush to be elsewhere. You’d have trouble describing the murderer, except for those eyes -- which are in any case just a couple of dots poked into an empty face the color of the road. He’s a sketchy kind of guy.
The whole thing has a penny-dreadful tabloid feel, and Munch might have based it on a grisly story in a Norwegian newspaper. After the mass slaughter of the First World War, and the pandemic of Spanish influenza (which Munch caught, and survived, the same year he painted this), what’s one more stupid little killing on a quiet country road?
Munch liked a good murder. A man dies on a couch, blood drooling on to the furniture. His female killer stands across the room against awful green wallpaper, her face a mad scary-movie shriek. The pattern in the wallpaper swarms and roars. You want to get out of there, to be as far away as that hurrying killer on the road. And yet you stay. It is all too horribly compelling.
Munch painted other scenes from this same room: of jealousy and seduction, of silence and something awful about to happen. Each is like a scene from the same grim play, and he would then paint the same sad scene over and over. Six paintings, a bronze sculpture, various drawings, lithographs and photographs all depict a naked woman standing and weeping beside a bed, her head lowered. In each painting, her head is a distraught mess of pigment. I thought of Pierre Bonnard and of Edward Hopper: both succeeded here at what Munch tries and tries and fails to do. Munch’s weeping woman is a kind of no one: it is not even clear that she is weeping. Bonnard and Hopper leave you with a sense of an individual in a space.
Even the paintings that are misconceived or a mess are fascinating records of a struggle. To be between greatness and inarticulacy, and to not care either way, takes a perverse sort of courage. At times Munch’s paintings show great daring; at others, they become incoherent. Munch was extremely good at doing nasty. You could say he savored it, and so do we: all those vampires and ruined relationships, horror, illness and death. His appetite for the sanguine is shared by most of us who watch thrillers and crime dramas and read murder stories. How Scandinavian of him, as Bjork might sing.
Munch didn’t just paint nasty things: it got into the way he painted too, even-perhaps when he painted himself. Unsparing, Munch portrayed himself sick with the Spanish flu, drunk and with the bottles rearing up at him, ill and old and alone, sunken-faced, maundering around a darkened house. He turned himself into a character: melancholy Munch, a man beset by miseries, alcoholism, his own fame and fortune, his conspicuously wayward talent and his endless personal troubles.
Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye tries to make us see Munch as modern in several ways: his repetition and serial repainting, his interest in photography and film, his use of theatrical lighting. He was aware of the opportunities and limits afforded by these different media. We always cast the art of the past in the ways that suit us: there is always new research, and new ways of looking. As it is, legions of artists have taken from him in one way or another. Andy Warhol reworked Munch in electric color. Jasper Johns has quoted him. Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Rene Daniels, Tracey Emin and a host of belated neo-expressionists have sucked his blood.