Photo/Illutration“Munch: A Retrospective” is being held until Jan. 20 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in the capital’s Ueno district. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A man resting his chin in his hands. A vampire embracing a man’s neck.

The paintings by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) are depressing to see, suggesting the inner conflict and loneliness that must have plagued the Norwegian artist.

But a very different side of him emerges in “Munch: A Retrospective,” an exhibition being held until Jan. 20 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in the capital’s Ueno district.

Munch was a young boy when his mother died. This was soon followed by the death of his beloved older sister.

He lost his middle finger when a gun, brought by an ardent suitor who wanted to marry him, went off accidentally. He also went through long years of alcohol addiction.

The somber hues of his iconic “The Scream” appear to reflect his troubled life.

But tracing Munch’s life chronologically, I realized that his rise to “national artist” status must have been surprisingly smooth.

He won a Norwegian government scholarship in his 20s to study in Paris. His works were sometimes panned ruthlessly, but his fame grew throughout Europe in his early years, and he was decorated in his 40s.

“It appears that Munch was blessed with a flair for self-promotion,” said Akiko Kobayashi, a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

He wrote captions for his own paintings to raise their value. For “The Scream,” he revised the caption every time it went on display.

One version went: “One evening I was walking along a path. ... I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. ... The color shrieked.”

Munch would have made a first-rate copywriter.

At the Ueno exhibition, I was struck by the abundance of self-portraits. He is said to have painted more than 200 during his lifetime.

In his middle age, he used a camera to amass a collection of nude photos of himself. The massive “selfies” he took hint at narcissism.

His creative juices never ceased to flow until his final years. Referring to his works as his “children,” he kept them on display in his studio.

He was 80 when he died in 1944. Contrary to his image as a deeply tortured soul, I think one should say that he actually lived a happy life as an artist.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 8

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.