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Edvard Munch’s artistic outlook: ‘There should be pictures of real people who breathed, who suffered, felt, loved’

Berlin’s state gallery has pulled out all the stops for the city’s first Munch exhibition in 30 years

For the British writer Christopher Isherwood, Berlin was about boys. For the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who arrived three decades earlier, Berlin was about booze.

Arriving in 1892 to an imperial capital obsessed with all things Nordic, the no-name Norwegian artist saw a ticket to his first public show. Rather than present the expected fjord-filled landscapes, however, the 28-year-old painter – between epic drinking binges – presented outrageously radical works that, even today, jump off the canvas. It was too much for the Berlin establishment: their outrage was so great that his first exhibition was closed again after just a week.

What had Munch done wrong – or right? For one thing he had refused to reflect back at his conservative German hosts their idealised Nordic notions. Far worse, in their eyes, he had taken the impressionist forms they so loathed and dug even deeper, using anti-realist and symbolist ideas he had picked up while studying in Paris. Inhaling there the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, Munch no longer saw a painting’s function as being to record a moment or scene; now its role was to open a window into existence itself in all its forms: love, desire, procreation, loneliness, death. For Munch he needed to find a form that “moved my mind”.

“There should be no more pictures of interiors, of people reading and women knitting,” Munch wrote in his diary. “There should be pictures of real people who breathed, who suffered, felt, loved.”

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Axel Gallén, a Finnish painter who exhibited with him in Berlin in 1895, wrote perceptively at the time: “Munch does not make art for the sake of art, which would be child’s play for him, but instead for the terrible pain that plagues him.”

It was in Berlin that this directionless drifter, living in a primitive digs smelling of turpentine and cigarettes, found his groove to become the immortal Edvard Munch. That, at least, is the daring claim made in a thrilling exhibition of 90 diverse works by Munch at the Berlinische Galerie.

The German capital’s state gallery has pulled out all the stops for the city’s first Munch exhibition in 30 years. While the best-known example of this form is The Scream – more on which later – the Berlin show offers other prime examples, such as Frieze of Life from 1902. There are countless fascinating, disturbing works from his Berlin period with recurring motifs of female figures: temptress, valkyrie and even vampire.

The so-called Munch affair of 1892 not only launched the painter’s career; the shock waves he generated blasted open the stuffy Berlin art world to modernism. The mutual gratitude was clear in the decades to come, with 60 Munch exhibitions in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler, a failed painter, denounced Munch’s work as degenerate.

Many of the restless Munch works on display here reflect the artist’s tumultuous (love) life in Berlin, revolving around the Black Piglet wine bar. Given its name by another Nordic Berliner, the playwright August Strindberg, it was here that Munch drank all night and watched the dramatist – and other locals – obsess over his Norwegian writer friend Dagny Juel.

A regular Munch model and lover, Juel dallied first with Strindberg before marrying the Polish poet Stanisław Przybyszewski, a pal from the Black Piglet. Two separate portraits of the two – she enigmatic, amused; he joyous, mischievous – are highlights of the Berlin exhibition. Munch’s warm feelings for both was clearly mutual. Przybyszewski, then a medical student, wrote admiringly in 1894: “Edvard Munch is the first to have attempted to depict the finest and most subtle movements of the soul.”

With his soul-searching torment of later years still ahead of him, the variety of Berlin work on display here is breathtaking. Though Munch insisted repeatedly that he was not a portrait painter, the portraits of his drinking friends are not the only ones to suggest otherwise. There is a surprisingly happy self-portrait from 1893 and a gently mocking 1907 portrait of the German industrialist Walter Rathenau. “A disgusting fellow, no?” Rathenau joked on seeing the finished work. “But that’s what one gets from being painted by a great artist: one becomes more of a likeness than one is.”

With witty portraits, moving woodprints and landscapes of popping colour, this Berlin show vibrates with life and energy and counters the gloom often associated with Munch. The same cannot be said of a second exhibition, at the Barberini Museum in nearby Potsdam. A privately run gallery with a focus on impressionism – and a world-class collection of Monets on the top floor – its Munch show misses, literally and figuratively, the wood for the trees.

Its curators offer visitors a wide range of Munch landscapes sorted by subject – forests, fields, beaches – when the images are clearly works about despair, pain, mental illness and averted gazes. The discrepancy is most striking – and tragic – when Munch tries to paint the English promenade in Nice and misses the playful colour and sparkle of similar scenes by the French impressionist. Art therapists could, had they been brought on board, dug far deeper into this mixed bag of works than the Barberini curators.

Still, the Potsdam show displays a rare 1895 lithographic version of Munch’s famous scream, with its original handwritten German title Der Geschrei, which best translates as Screaming. The subject is not the source of the scream, Munch insists, but trying to keep out a “vast endless scream passing through nature”.

At a time of extreme world suffering, this double dose of Munch as he lived and loved – as well as suffered – is a calming and welcome retreat.

Munch: Magic of the North is at the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, until January 22nd, 2024; Munch: Trembling Earth is at the Barberini Museum, Potsdam, until April 4th