His childhood was overshadowed by illness, bereavement and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in the family. Studying at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (today’s Oslo), Munch began to live a bohemian life under the influence of nihilist Hans J?ger, who urged him to paint his own emotional and psychological state (‘soul painting’). From this emerged his distinctive style.
Travel brought new influences and outlets. In Paris, he learned much from Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, especially their use of colour. In Berlin, he met Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, whom he painted, as he embarked on his major canon The Frieze of Life, depicting a series of deeply-felt themes such as love, anxiety, jealousy and betrayal, steeped in atmosphere.
The Scream was conceived in Kristiania. According to Munch, he was out walking at sunset, when he heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature. The painting’s agonised face is widely identified with the angst of the modern person. Between 1893 and 1910, he made two painted versions and two in pastels, as well as a number of prints. One of the pastels would eventually command the fourth highest nominal price paid for a painting at auction.
As his fame and wealth grew, his emotional state remained insecure. He briefly considered marriage, but could not commit himself. A breakdown in 1908 forced him to give up heavy drinking, and he was cheered by his increasing acceptance by the people of Kristiania and exposure in the citys museums. His later years were spent working in peace and privacy. Although his works were banned in Nazi Germany, most of them survived World War II, securing him a legacy.
Edvard Munch was born in a farmhouse in the village of ?dalsbruk in L?ten, Norway, to Laura Catherine Bj?lstad and Christian Munch, the son of a priest. Christian was a doctor and medical officer who married Laura, a woman half his age, in 1861. Edvard had an elder sister, Johanne Sophie, and three younger siblings: Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie. Laura was artistically talented and may have encouraged Edvard and Sophie. Edvard was related to painter Jacob Munch and to historian Peter Andreas Munch.
The family moved to Christiania (renamed Kristiania in 1877, and now Oslo) in 1864 when Christian Munch was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. Edvard’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch’s favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. After their mother’s death, the Munch siblings were raised by their father and by their aunt Karen. Often ill for much of the winters and kept out of school, Edvard would draw to keep himself occupied. He was tutored by his school mates and his aunt. Christian Munch also instructed his son in history and literature, and entertained the children with vivid ghost-stories and the tales of American writer Edgar Allan Poe.
As Edvard remembered it, Christian’s positive behavior toward his children was overshadowed by his morbid pietism. Munch wrote, “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religiousto the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” Christian reprimanded his children by telling them that their mother was looking down from heaven and grieving over their misbehavior. The oppressive religious milieu, Edvard’s poor health, and the vivid ghost stories helped inspire his macabre visions and nightmares; the boy felt that death was constantly advancing on him. One of Munch’s younger sisters, Laura, was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings, only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch would later write, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemiesthe heritage of consumption and insanity.”
Christian Munch’s military pay was very low, and his attempts to develop a private side practice failed, keeping his family in genteel but perennial poverty. They moved frequently from one cheap flat to another. Munch’s early drawings and watercolors depicted these interiors, and the individual objects, such as medicine bottles and drawing implements, plus some landscapes. By his teens, art dominated Munch’s interests. At thirteen, Munch had his first exposure to other artists at the newly formed Art Association, where he admired the work of the Norwegian landscape school. He returned to copy the paintings, and soon he began to paint in oils.
Studies and influences
In 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering, where he excelled in physics, chemistry and math. He learned scaled and perspective drawing, but frequent illnesses interrupted his studies. The following year, much to his father’s disappointment, Munch left the college determined to become a painter. His father viewed art as an “unholy trade”, and his neighbors reacted bitterly and sent him anonymous letters. In contrast to his father’s rabid pietism, Munch adopted an undogmatic stance toward art. He wrote his goal in his diary: “in my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”
In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch. His teachers were sculptor Julius Middelthun and the naturalistic painter Christian Krohg. That year, Munch demonstrated his quick absorption of his figure training at the Academy in his first portraits, including one of his father and his first self-portrait. In 1883, Munch took part in his first public exhibition and shared a studio with other students. His full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, a notorious bohemian-about-town, earned a critic’s dismissive response: “It is impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.” Munch’s nude paintings from this period survive only in sketches, except for Standing Nude (1887). They may have been confiscated by his father.
During these early years, Munch experimented with many styles, including Naturalism and Impressionism. Some early works are reminiscent of Manet. Many of these attempts brought him unfavorable criticism from the press and garnered him constant rebukes by his father, who nonetheless provided him with small sums for living expenses. At one point, however, Munch’s father, perhaps swayed by the negative opinion of Munch’s cousin Edvard Diriks (an established, traditional painter), destroyed at least one painting (likely a nude) and refused to advance any more money for art supplies.
Munch also received his father’s ire for his relationship with Hans J?ger, the local nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion” and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. Munch came under his malevolent, anti-establishment spell. “My ideas developed under the influence of the bohemians or rather under Hans J?ger. Many people have mistakenly claimed that my ideas were formed under the influence of Strindberg and the Germans but that is wrong. They had already been formed by then.” At that time, contrary to many of the other bohemians, Munch was still respectful of women, as well as reserved and well-mannered, but he began to give in to the binge drinking and brawling of his circle. He was unsettled by the sexual revolution going on at the time and by the independent women around him. He later turned cynical concerning sexual matters, expressed not only in his behavior and his art, but in his writings as well, an example being a long poem called The City of Free Love. Still dependent on his family for many of his meals, Munch’s relationship with his father remained tense over concerns about his bohemian life.
After numerous experiments, Munch concluded that the Impressionist idiom did not allow sufficient expression. He found it superficial and too akin to scientific experimentation. He felt a need to go deeper and explore situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy. Under J?ger’s commandment that Munch should “write his life”, meaning that Munch should explore his own emotional and psychological state, the young artist began a period of reflection and self-examination, recording his thoughts in his “soul’s diary”. This deeper perspective helped move him to a new view of his art. He wrote that his painting The Sick Child (1886), based on his sister’s death, was his first “soul painting”, his first break from Impressionism. The painting received a negative response from critics and from his family, and caused another “violent outburst of moral indignation” from the community.
Only his friend Christian Krohg defended him:
He paints, or rather regards, things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason Munch’s pictures are as a rule “not complete”, as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. Oh, yes, they are complete. His complete handiwork. Art is complete once the artist has really said everything that was on his mind, and this is precisely the advantage Munch has over painters of the other generation, that he really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else.
Munch continued to employ a variety of brushstroke techniques and color palettes throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, as he struggled to define his style. His idiom continued to veer between naturalistic, as seen in Portrait of Hans J?ger, and impressionistic, as in Rue Lafayette. His Inger On the Beach (1889), which caused another storm of confusion and controversy, hints at the simplified forms, heavy outlines, sharp contrasts, and emotional content of his mature style to come. He began to carefully calculate his compositions to create tension and emotion. While stylistically influenced by the Post-Impressionists, what evolved was a subject matter which was symbolist in content, depicting a state of mind rather than an external reality. In 1889, Munch presented his first one-man show of nearly all his works to date. The recognition it received led to a two-year state scholarship to study in Paris under French painter L?on Bonnat.
Munch seems to have been an early critic of photography as an art form, and remarked that it “will never compete with the brush and the palette, until such time as photographs can be taken in Heaven or Hell!”
Munch’s younger sister Laura was the subject of his 1899 interior Melancholy: Laura. Amanda O’Neill says of the work, “In this heated claustrophobic scene Munch not only portrays Laura’s tragedy, but his own dread of the madness he might have inherited.”
The Story Of Edvard Munch
“[An] anxiety haunts the work of Edvard Munch, [that] is expressed with a formal inventiveness that impinges upon the emotions before we are even aware of the subject; the deeper regions of the psyche are accessible only through the potent agency of rhythm and color.
“ When Munch began studying art in Christiania (now Oslo), Norwegian artists practiced a form of Protestant, populist realism. Munch was, however, from the very start, an innovator. True, he painted genre scenes, but in a spirit all his own. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. At fourteen, he watched his fifteen-year-old sister Sophie succumb to the same disease. When, at twenty-two, he acquired the technical means to portray it, her death became an obsession to which he returned again and again: the wan face in profile against the pillow, the despairing mother at the bedside, the muted light, the tousled hair, the useless glass of water.
“Norway had long been under the influence of German aesthetics. Until 1870, Norwegian artists usually went to D?sseldorf to study and pursue a career. Later, they went to Paris, Berlin, Munich and Karlsruhe. But by 1880, Paris had become the center. And so it was that Munch, in 1885, undertaking his first journey at twenty-two, was led to discover French art and the Symbolist spirit. It was in these circumstances that Munch’s personal neurosis, the anxiety which women caused him (although he pursued them incessantly until the great psychological crisis of his forties), entered the ambit of cultural anxiety expressed in Symbolist art.
“Munch was chiefly concerned with his own existential drama: ‘My art’, he declared, ‘is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?’, adding ‘My art gives meaning to my life’. Thus he considered his entire work as a single entity: The Frieze of Life. The frieze was manifestly an expression of anxiety (for example, in The Scream) but also of tender pathos: of the ‘dance of life’. (This seems to have been a common subject at the time; we find Gustav Mahler alluding to it in reference to the dance-like movements of his symphonies.) Munch perceived sex as an ineluctable destiny, and few of his works represent Woman (capitalized as usual) in a favorable light. In Puberty a skinny young girl meditates, sitting naked on her bed beneath the threatening form of her own shadow, while in The Voice a young woman, alone in the woods, attends to some inner whisper; these are the most sensitive representations of woman in Munch’s work.
“In another iconic image, the Madonna, of which he painted various versions between 1893 and 1902, overtly offers her ecstatic sexuality and yet remains inaccessible. Why inaccessible? A lithographic version suggests the answer: around the frame which encloses the seductress the straggling spermatozoa wriggle in vain while, in the lower left-hand corner, a pathetic homunculus, a wizened and ageless wide-eyed fetus, lifts its supplicant gaze toward the goddess.
“Munch’s lithograph verges on irony, to which he was not averse. Even so, modifying the well-known phrase, we may wish to suggest that ‘irony is the courtesy of despair’. Munch’s art represents women in the light of trauma. Seduction itself is a source of anxiety; satisfaction brings remorse (Ashes), and jealousy and separation are experienced as terrifying and depressing events.
“The personal aspect of Munch’s work need not concern us in relation to a coherent and authoritative ?uvre whose themes are common to many other artists of the time. But it should be noted that, at around forty-five, Munch suffered a profound depression and spent eight months in a sanatorium in Denmark. Thereafter he gave up the anxiety-laden subject matter so central to his work and began painting everyday subjects with the same vigorous brushwork and expressionistic colors as before. His motives may have been prophylactic. He later claimed to a friend that he had simultaneously given up women and alcohol, though here again irony is not ruled out.”
– From “Symbolism”, a Taschen art book by Michael Gibson.
Books on Edvard Munch
THE STORY OF EDVARD MUNCH
by Ketil BJ?RNSTAD
Translated from the Norwegian by Torbjfrn Stfverud and Hal Sutcliffe.
Published by Arcadia Books. ISBN I-900850-44-3.
From the cover:
“Damaged by childhood and by appalling family tragedies, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was obsessed by sickness, insanity and death.
“His life was tormented by persecution mania and emotional and physical fragility. Relationships with women foundered in loathing and mistrust, friendships frequently turned to enmity and violence, and his dark, difficult genius was misunderstood.
“Yet his tortured and shockingly personal art, which at first provoked outrage, eventually gained him fame, wealth and the respect of the art establishment that had rejected him, and of his native Norway. In a single year, no fewer than eleven exhibitions of his paintings were shown throughout Europe, and the city of Oslo built a museum to house his work.
“Using Munch’s own letters and diaries and those of his contemporaries and friends, as well as newspapers and journals of the time, Ketil Bjfrnstad’s ‘literary biography’ – which can be read as a novel – presents us with a picture of Edvard Munch as unsparingly true as any of his self-portraits.”
‘Fascinating as a literary reconstruction of Munch’s life which brings us closer to the man and the artist’ – Anglo-Norsk Review.
A central passage from this work:
“He stands in the middle of a smoke-filled music hall listening to some Romanians sing about love. It is then that it happens, that he suddenly thinks: I ought to do something, begin something, something which should strike others as forcibly as it now strikes me. But is this new? Isn’t it just the same old story he’s been boring his friends to death with for years, from Colditz to Goldstein? Isn’t it just his J?ger-inspired thoughts about the magic of the passing moment which he has taken over as his own? He says: I ought to do something, begin something. It sounds like the same words, yet suddenly he sees the motifs, not a landscape in the morning light, not just any chance event, not the vintner in St Cloud, not the bar, not random people he comes across on the road, who in any case mean nothing to him. He thinks of two people, a man and a woman, at the most sacred moment in their lives. A sturdy bare arm, a strong tanned neck, a young woman lays her head against the arched chest. She closes her eyes and listen with quivering, open mouth to the words he whispers into her long, flowing hair. He stands in the Montagnes Russes and knows what the motif means, knows what he saw, knows that he is going to paint it in a blue haze. He sees Summer Night/The Voice, To the Forest and Eye to Eye, he sees Kiss and Vampire. He stands there in the smoke-filled music hall and feels that it is going to be so easy, is going to take shape beneath his hands as though by magic. The woman closes her eyes and listens with open, quivering mouth. At that moment, the man and woman are not themselves, but are just one link among the thousands connecting one generation to another. He stands there and thinks that people should understand how sacred and majestic what is happening between the man and the woman on the canvas is, they should remove their hats as though in church. Not just one, but a whole series of such pictures. The flesh will take on form, the colours take on life. The man and the woman breathe and feel, suffer and love. No more interiors, people reading and women knitting. Munch stands in the Montagnes Russes and sees The Frieze of Life take shape, the stages in the lives of people, his own history, love, anguish, death. He sees the sickroom at Fossveien, the russet-coloured house in Borre, the summer night at ?sg?rdstrand. He is an orphaned lad in St Cloud. He has sat night after night at a window watching the boats glide past. Now violins are being tuned, now he hears notes he recognizes: the Carilla Waltz, the one she sang at the piano, captivating with her sweetest, most charming voice, now cajoling, now beseeching. He is ensnared. She is laughing, joyful, mocking, pushes him away then takes pity on him. Now he is no longer hers. She is his. He can use her however he likes, because here he stands in the Montagnes Russes and sees all the unpainted pictures in front of him. He is going to paint his life. His own life. A sturdy bare arm. A strong tanned neck. The forest. The sea. A blue haze. And he remembers everything that happened as though it were yesterday.”
The Frieze Of Life
Translated from the Norwegian by Hal Sutcliffe and Torbj?rn St?verud.
J.M. Stenersens Forlag AS, Oslo, Norway. Published in September 2000. Hardback. ISBN 82-7201-293-6.
Copiously illustrated in colour.
From the cover:
“Edvard Munch’s ruthless self-revelation through his art mirrors not only the particular nature of the artist but the style of a whole age; what was private was to be revealed in the full gaze of the public. A central concept in Munch’s art thus became The Frieze of Life, a series of deeply personal pictures conveying an existential message. Munch captured the painful experiences of Love – Angst – Death with his pen long before he painted them. It is this relationship between the painter’s own “poetic” texts and the motifs in The Frieze of Life that Arne Eggum set out to focus on in this work, and by juxtaposing them he has added an important dimension to our understanding of Munch’s art.”
From the Foreword:
“A fundamental concept in Edvard Munch’s art is The Frieze of Life, a series of deeply personal, highly expressive motifs in paintings and graphic works, imbued with existential angst. Together, the pictures constitute his major work. On the subject of the origins of The Frieze of Life, Munch wrote in the early thirties in a draft letter to his friend Jens Thiis:
You don’t need to look very far for the origins of The Frieze of Life – It can be explained by the age of the Bohemians – The idea was to paint life as it was lived or one’s own life – Besides that, I had already had the whole Frieze of Life ready in poetic form for a long time, so you could say that all the spade work was already finished many years before I came to Berlin.
“It is this relationship between Munch’s own ‘poetic’ texts and the series of motifs on the theme of love – angst – death which I focus upon in this book. Munch’s own literary efforts, written in intimate contact with the literature of his time, give direct insight into his conscious artistic intentions and also a deeper understanding of the human content which is so obtrusively present in this series of pictures. It is the content which is their mainstay. The experiences which lie beneath and behind the individual motifs seem to bear down upon the artist in the act of creation.
“In the catalogue for an exhibition entitled Liebe – Angst – Tod, a joint venture between the Munch Museum and the Bielefeld Kunsthalle in 1980, I discussed the relationship between the graphic works exhibited and Munch’s literary texts. This exhibition, an edited version of which was also shown at the Munch Museum, inspired me to reflect more deeply on this topic and explore it further.
“On a number of occasions, Edvard Munch indicated that he was planning to publish his literary texts relating to graphic works. The painted motifs in The Frieze of Life struck me as a natural place to start, then, in line with Munch’s own intentions, focusing on the graphic expression of The Frieze of Life, in this attempt to show how his literary texts are reflected in his art.”