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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Edvard Munch's 1893 painting, "The Scream," has come to symbolize the anxiety of modern life, and the artist himself was frequently cast as insanely preoccupied by death, sickness and longing.
At times, Norway's greatest artist lived up to the neurotic, tortured characterization and exhibited works that scandalized critics.
But Munch's art and his life, the subjects of a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 26, reveal a savvy and searching artist who tapped into evolving European motifs and Nordic myths to portray contemporary society's prevailing moods and inner psyche.
In putting together "Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth," which opens on Saturday, museum curator Jay Clarke said she dispelled the image of Munch as a socially aberrant artist.
Opening the show of some 150 works by Munch and his contemporaries is a self-portrait with the artist's penetrating yet calm gaze emerging from the haze of smoke from a cigarette. In the late 19th century, the painting's brushwork and casual quality were condemned as immoral and bohemian.
"If you painted in this open, free style, this hectic manner, there was an idea that it connected to moral degeneracy," Clarke said.
"Of course, I'm sure Munch was no hotbed of mental health," she said, noting his alcoholism and paranoia.
But Munch clearly had his wits about him when he wrote to his aunt how amusing he found it that his art at an introductory 1892 Berlin show could so scandalize the public that it was shut down.
Renaming the exhibition "The Scandal Show," Munch persuaded galleries to charge admission and give him a percentage, on which he supported himself, Clarke said.
Munch's famous images of "The Scream" are seen in a lithograph because the original painted versions are forbidden to leave Norway. "Anxiety," "Ashes," and "Melancholy," are other powerful works in the exhibit.
Several paintings by Claude Monet show his likely influence on Munch. Clarke said works by other artists included in the show were carefully chosen because they were likely to have been seen by the well-traveled Munch.
Works in the exhibition by relatively obscure Norwegian contemporaries such as Harriet Backer and Eilif Peterssen display themes that Munch picked up on: solitary Nordic interiors in winter, the claustrophobic sickrooms of patients stricken by then-endemic tuberculosis, and the healing powers of sun and water splashing into Norway's fjords.
Like fellow Symbolists, such as Odilon Redon, Munch sought to wring meaning and tension from both subject matter and in the mediums he chose. For instance, slashing diagonal brush strokes in some paintings create a vibrating, tense sensation.
By contrast, one of three Munch canvases of street scenes uses garish colors -- later adopted by Fauve artists -- and blurring action to evoke surging traffic on a Paris boulevard.
His huge canvases of bathers and embracing couples are widely interpreted as ambiguous. He adopted the "femme fatale" as a frequent subject, viewing marriage as sapping the artistic impulse and expressing fears he would sire damaged children.
But Clarke said the never-married Munch had love affairs and several healthy friendships with women patrons.
"People always want to make a wild and crazy story about Munch and all his relationships," she said.
Still, Munch likely suffered as much as any artist, and perhaps more than most.
His childhood marred by frail health and the deaths of his mother and sister, Munch would later write: "sickness, insanity and death were the black angels that guarded my cradle."
Editing by Patricia Reaney