Edvard Munch’s moment at the Courtauld
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At the Courtauld, eighteen paintings by Edvard Munch are a revelation and a terror. Early experiments in impressionist light give on to unheimlich moonscapes and petrifying death-in-life street-scenes. The very best—that is, the very worst—feel like schizoaffective episodes, force-fermented in Munch’s consciousness and uncorked directly into the viewer’s. This is serious moonshine, the kind of thing that fucks you up quicker than you realise. In room one I puzzled over Munch’s progress from an impressionist matinée idol to a proto-expressionist. In room two I barely suppressed a panic attack.
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The show begins with something utterly unlike the work that follows: a pointillist, Seurat-influenced scene of the Oslo boulevard Karl Johan Strasse, which he would paint many times. It was not a success. The young artist was nicknamed ‘Bizzaro’ (as in, ‘Camille ____’, an admittedly good joke). We’ll return to this at the end.
Two larger paintings, Morning Light and Inger on the Beach, pick up the slack. The first, which features a woman seated on a bed pulling on her stocking, raised the hackles of a self-righteously syphilitic Norwegian establishment. But it’s the second that captivates and announces something new in Munch.
Inger on the Beach, Edvard Munch, 1889.
The subject, Munch’s sister, sits among smooth boulders with a flat sea behind. It’s evening. The forms are simplified and the painterly flair is effaced. At the shore, an ebb of shadowed colours brims with grimy iridescence. The subject’s dress is hemmed with a thick navy outline, a crayon stroke almost, that emphasises her heavy separateness, and the volumetric boulders around her share in that isolation. It’s as though the objects in the picture have been assembled from different dimensions: they are alone, together. Only a receding line of orange toothpicks—joyful, momentary gestures that conjure fishtraps receding towards the horizon—will admit the eye’s instant powers of apprehension or the pleasure it takes in distance. We won’t see anything like them after this.
On the far wall of the first room, we see another dock and another seascape. But by now we’ve left the world behind. In Melancholy, a facelessly pensive man sits by the Åsgårdstand shoreline, while a distorted Sin-wave of purple sea slides away into the background behind him.
Melancholy, Edvard Munch, 1894-6.
We’re adrift here from the certainties of Inger on the Beach. Cropped at the waist, the figure sits we don’t know where, though from three large brown whorls beside him we can infer a boulder like the ones we saw earlier. Those stones sit flat at the picture-plane—a flatness that gives way to sudden distance above, where Munch’s dramatic compression of perspective creates a binary quality, a simultaneous sense of belowness and aboveness that means we literally don’t know where we stand.
What time of day is it? Instinctively I understand this as an evening scene. Yet the painting’s one streak of daylight, where the blonde beach meets bright green trees, argues against that certainty. Looking there I lose the time of day, too. I’m sure you could propose one, by studying maps of the Norweigan coast and working out the position of the setting sun relative to this piece of land, but it would only be overcomplicating—further overcomplicating—what the viewer intuits immediately: this is an interior landscape. The sitting figure doesn’t respond to the scene around him. He creates it.
It’s tempting to turn left and move through to the next room now towards the show’s true terror, Evening on Karl Johann Strasse. But I have to stop at House in Moonlight: a scene set in a night so bright that the guiltily trysting figures cast clear, sinuous, red-rimmed shadows.
House in Moonlight, Edvard Munch, 1893-5.
It’s rare to see moonbeams perform the neutral functions of daylight. There ought to be a shimmer of obfuscation, a vaseline lens smear that softens and mystifies the world. Here moonlight is just a colder way of seeing. (Or, given the furtiveness of this rendezvous, a colder way of being seen.)
Would a painter interested in distortion for its own sake insist so forcefully on this cold, far-seeing moonlight? And it is insisted upon: even the title says that this is the true subject of the painting. Is Munch not trying to suggest that this is precisely what you see when you see most clearly? A vibrating shadow, a dark figure. Ravenous nature reclaiming the drab houses we spend our days in. A well-lit sense of something deeply wrong at the core of human life.
I once saw a lightning storm that, with each great sheet of white, lit up the world like a grey sun. Through the window, the garden tree, the grass, the stone steps, the white plastic patio chair outside were just as present, as proximate and as neutrally delineated by this light as they were by a dark November afternoon. Munch’s moonlight reminded me, more than anything, of that sudden uncanny brightness.
I was shocked then, to read in his biography that during this period Munch conceived of painting in comparable terms. ‘One must paint precisely the fleeting moment of significance’, he wrote. ‘One must capture the exact experience separating that significant moment from the next—the exact moment when the motif struck one.’ The moment to be painted was so brief it was not part of regular diachronic time. Rather, it was part of the viewer. ‘In some circumstances a chair may seem to be just as interesting as a human being. [...] it’s not the chair that should be painted, but what the person has felt at the sight of it.’
After Inger on the Beach, the works on show here aren’t interested in portraying a chronological moment, which implies the diurnal passage of the days. Like all paintings, they portray a particular moment, but their understanding of this moment, and their means of addressing it, is something new in European art. And they are vociferous about this moment’s importance, because they believe that it is where the world and painting touch.
Let me first explain my basic idea. What I call ‘the painted moment’ is simply the precise second or split second of life that a painting depicts. It can be short or long: think of a Pissarro landscape, whose abundant poetic detail evokes the act of looking and looking again at a certain landscape. In The Hermitage at Pontoise, this ongoing diurnal reality has an equally diurnal chronology. In ruffled pockets of shadow and shade, the day’s end is brewing. Here the painted moment is coterminous with the moment of seeing and the moment of painting; we understand that the time when the artist must pack up his acrylics is not far off.
Hermitage at Pontoise, Camille Pissarro, 1867.
Sometimes the painted moment contains larger timescales, like the cycle of the seasons or the years. In Rubens’ great landscape at the Wallace Collection, light and distance deepen in avenues of forest trees that stretch towards impending night. To the left, stacks of hay are being gathered for the winter, probably to feed the herd of cows that tramp past a dwindling August stream. Within the day’s passage we can see the timetable of the year.
Landscape with a Rainbow, Peter Paul Rubens, c.1636.
Sometimes the moment is both worldly and eschatological. There are many examples in Bellini, but I’ve reproduced The Agony in the Garden below. Though it’s dawn here, Bellini’s horizons often kiss what might be dawn and dusk at the same time. They are a constant (and constantly beautiful) remembrance of the Venetian light, yet—I should say ‘and’, really, since there is no hint of opposition or contradiction in Bellini’s painting— they also embody Christian timelines of nativity and crucifixion, death and resurrection.
The Agony in the Garden, Giovanni Bellini, 1459-65.
And sometimes the moment is dramatic and reflexive, as in the ‘moment of Caravaggio’ identified by Michael Fried. In Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard the subject acts dramatically, recoiling from the bite, but with their body arranged to recall the posture of a self-portraitist at work. Or rather, that of an artist recoiling from their own finished work. It’s a double instant, in which a completed action is apprehended with horror. The subject becomes the victim of their moment of vision. It has a direct, almost confessional force; as that someone could animate in the present tense Lowell’s judgment, ‘My eyes have seen what my hand did.’ 
I want to compare each to something else. The Pissarro is like a time-lapse film of a village afternoon. The Rubens is like the length of road from which a mounted rider can take in a particular view. The Bellini is precise and continual, like the parabolic period of a swinging church bell. The Caravaggio is the most complex of all. It is like the split-second in which someone winces at the blinding flash from a camera they have pointed at their own face: it is the flash and the recoiling all at once.
Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio, 1593-4.
Munch’s moment is unique. It is the sudden moment in which an awful truth is seen and understood. Though this revelation must take place at a particular point in time, it is not limited to that time. It has a transfiguring effect on everything that occurs before and after. Crucially, Munch does not depict a scene in time when someone understands something, a tragic figure say, giving a cry of anagnorisis, but the moment as it was transformed and penetrated by that understanding. Not a revelation within space, but the revelation itself. Here is the artist writing about one such visionary experience:
I went along the road with two friends. The sun set. Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness [...] clouds over the fjørd dripped reeking blood. My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound in my breast. I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.
Munch’s moment is a totalising instant, a split-second that transfigures everything. It is the world lit up by sheet lightning.
This might not all ring true. It certainly doesn’t ring true for every one of Munch’s paintings. But it seems like a good way of understanding a work like Evening on Karl Johan Strasse:
Evening on Karl Johan Strasse, Edvard Munch, 1892.
I said earlier, talking about the Munch’s clear, pitiless moonlight, that the artist might be labouring to show that his distortions and evil colour clashes were a well-lit, well-seen reality. Here the title is operating with similar didactic force. The only similarly named painting in the show is the early pointillist boulevard, and we might expect a similar treatment, one that says: this is the world as it really appears. But if Munch is saying anything with Evening on Karl Johann it seems to be: this is the world as it really is. A procession of corpses, hollow-socketed or altogether faceless. Have clothes every looked as pathetically arbitrary, as constrictive, as boxy and heavy? What need is there for coffins when we walk around already buried?
That cluster of trees in the upper right is a distinctive Munchian shape. You can see a version of it in Melancholy, above, as an inlet of sea. And most clearly of all, you can see it in The Scream, eating into the background behind the subject. Here it stands like a mute fish-mouthed abstraction—an eye will even appear if you tilt your head to the right and squint—rooted and gasping in the evening air.
The heads and hats establish a disjointed colour rhythm of weak yolk, black and albumen. The exact shades are reiterated in the dark-rimmed white and yellow of the avenue’s lanterns and windows. There are no shadows from the lamps. In fact, though there are obscure passages—a dark tangle of root-like branches grasps intricately towards the vanishing point; a darkened window front, barely legible, is shaded lightly onto the wall top left—I can’t be sure that there are any cast shadows in the painting full stop. If this is the light of revelation, then it comes from all directions and touches everything.
Looking round the second room, you have a vivid sense of a man on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. Eventually it came. From it he produced an extraordinary painting unlike any other in the show.
Self-Portrait in the Clinic, Edvard Munch, 1909.
I want to pick up a thread from earlier, when I talked about the sense of collective isolation that I see in Inger on the Beach. This seems to me like a radical inversion of that idea, instituted this time almost at the atomic level. Munch has turned himself into a swarming hive of brushstrokes, and Self Portrait in the Clinic is a portrait of a man in buzzing, blaring pieces. The crayon colour palette is broad but limited, and its application is obsessively rhythmical. The paintwork, which is thinner than you might think to look at it in reproduction, works with a similarly compulsive pattern of vertical and horizontal brushstrokes.
The picture divides vertically just left of centre, where a thin purple line leads into a descending set of lateral blacks; beyond, the left hand window seems to tease the possibility of depth and room space, but if you focus on it, the perspectival lines collapse into paper parallelograms. The same is true of the artist’s left arm, which might be abstract acrylic on nursery paper. In a picture that is so concerned with the magnetism of the vertical and the horizontal, it’s remarkable how careful Munch is to avoid a strict orthogonal in the geometrically complex passage of arm, armrest and chair upright. Through everything you can see a light blue ground that might be the sky beyond the window. Or might simply be a light blue canvas ground—one that has become indistinguishable from a clear sky.
This doesn’t seem to me like the painting of a moment of revelation. It feels like an accretion, an assemblage, a work of long looking and thinking. There is something defiant, almost heroic in it. It seems to suggest that you can hold the shards of yourself together by seeing—clearly and honestly—how far they have drifted apart. And then returning to see it again. The question that has lingered with me is whether Munch didn’t find something truer in this than in any other painting I saw. Since, without wishing to be glib, it’s nice to have two views on everything. And the view out surely has as much to offer as the view in.
Evening on Karl Johan Strasse, Edvard Munch, 1892.
Spring Day on Karl Johan Strasse, Edvard Munch, 1891.
 But why shouldn’t we stop and look some details? The oily patch of rainbow reflected in the stream; the Colgate coloured stripes in the butter-solid block of hay and its far upper; the long slants of light sifting through leaves to strike the shadowed trunks of trees; in the midst of all that thick foliage, the two tiny specks of grey blue sky that show through clean.
 Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio, 2010/
 The text is from Munch’s papers held in the Munch museum, Oslo. The translation is from Sue Prideaux’s Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, which is as good a biography as you could wish for and I recommend it to everyone.
 An anachronism: at the time of painting, we’re still half a decade away from the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. But I would note that Munch had an extremely advanced scientific education and liked to talk in depth about the latest developments in chemistry and physics.