"In whatever medium he worked—painting, drawing, or printmaking—the art of Munch is like a punch to the stomach." This line from Ronald Lauder's preface to the exhibition catalogue for Munch and Expressionism (at the Neue Galerie in New York until 13 June) is exactly half true. On the facing page of the preface is an image of one of the best works in the show, Edvard Munch's portrait of the Norwegian economist Christian Gierløff (1909), which carries none of the unease we are so accustomed to in Munch’s work. It is bright, colourful, cheery: the parts of the painting left untouched save for a few dabs of purple paint make it seem much more open than, say, the Scream (1895, on view nearby), which is almost oppressively laboured.
The exhibition is refreshing because it gives us the two sides of Munch. We see both the anxious artist who was "fundamentally pessimistic" about the relationships between men and women (one painting from 1905, Separation, depicts a man holding his bleeding heart as a woman drifts away), and also the painter of self-assured pictures like The Frenchman Marcel Archinard (around 1904) in which the Archinard gazes confidently outward.
Some painters are revered for the power for their art; others for their influence. Munch was important for both reasons. Egon Schiele, Ludwig Meidner, Emil Nolde—these are just three of the artists included in the show for whom Munch was essential. Small wonder his death inspired apprehension. Max Beckmann, leaning towards the disquiet we now associate with Munch, said it best: "Munch has died—when will my turn come?!"
Munch and Expressionism, Neue Galerie, New York, until 13 June