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  • A Great Endless Scream Through Nature

    Norway’s prince of melancholy gets a birthday party.

    Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1907

    Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1907



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    Throughout his long career, Edvard Munch was called by critics, the viewing public, and even friends a madman. The artist suffered from crippling respiratory difficulties and general poor health from childhood on, had multiple near-death experiences, and watched many of his family members die or go insane. He endured heartbreak, betrayal and bitter criticism, indulged romantic obsession, drank heavily, and developed agoraphobia so severe that he could not face crossing a town square. In 1908, at the age of 45, he placed himself in a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen for an eight-month stay that helped stabilize his anxieties.

    But it wasn’t madness that led Munch to create his harrowing masterpieces. Madness didn’t seduce him into fathering Expressionism. And it wasn’t madness that inspired The Scream—even though he did write at the top of one version, “This could only have been painted by a madman.” It wasn’t madness, it was clarity. With it, Munch was able to perceive and put form to depths of feeling that were earth’s-core deep, bubbling and fiery. He was the spelunker of these depths and became an indispensible guide for those who either denied that they existed or had lost the map that could take them there. In his diary he wrote, “My art is self-confession. Through it I seek to clarify my relationship to the world. This could be called egotism. However, I have always thought and felt that my art might be able to help others to clarify their own search for truth.”

    For Munch, who died, still working, at 80, multiple lifetimes would not have been enough to express these depths. Certainly, one artistic medium was never enough; he was constantly experimenting with paint, pastel and various kinds of printmaking in an effort to communicate as effectively as he could with as many audiences as possible. In fact, visual art itself, which captivated him from his teens on and which he never strayed from no matter what befell him, wasn’t enough. Despite the fact that he created some of art history’s most emotive canvases, if there were a form of expression capable of expressing agony even more intensely, Munch would have used it, would have mastered it. This is not to say that the expression of feeling was easy for him; quite the opposite. It crippled him, but he would have died without it.

    This year Munch turns 150, and it seems likely that no one would be more surprised than the artist himself that his birthday is being celebrated so passionately in various locations around the world. Though each of the celebratory exhibitions has a slightly different focus, they all fete Munch as a visual poet and pioneer of Modernism, whose stylistically and emotionally raw works are enduringly expressive rather than insane. They also use the artist’s work to piece together the story of his rather tumultuous life.

    Munch grew up in Oslo—then called Christiania—during the back end of the 1800s. His family was middle-class, politically conservative and religious to the point of being extreme. As a boy, Munch saw his mother die at age 30 from a pulmonary hemorrhage. In a letter to her children, a few months before her impending death, she wrote, “…Hold to God, read His word and hold fast to Him who has purchased your souls with his blood, so that we all, whom God has bound together will meet again in heaven, never more to be parted.” His older sister, Sophie who had requested the letter, died not many years later from tuberculosis. Munch’s near-death, also due to a pulmonary hemorrhage, took place on Christmas Day 1873, when he was 13 years old. He wrote in his diary that “illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”

    Because of poor health, he spent most of his childhood winters in bed drawing; he referred to this period as Putetiden, or pillow time. The majority of his early sketches were of dreary winter interiors, family members and the accoutrements of sickness—imagery that, along with depictions of his mother and sister dying, would haunt his paintings for the rest of his life. His father, whom Munch never got along with, was, ironically enough, a doctor. In his diary, Munch expressed a deep disillusionment that “all his father could do, as a doctor for his dying mother and sister and himself was to put his hands together and pray.”

    Unhappy with the thought of sharing his time at home with his father and God—whom late 19th-century European philosophers and members of the avant garde had also pronounced dead—as a teenager Munch began to frequent the hangouts of the city’s artists and writers. Hans Jaeger, the town nihilist, a proponent of free love and the ringleader of the bunch, began to hold great sway over the young painter. One of Jaeger’s philosophical sayings was that “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion.” Whether he knew it or not, as he reached his early 20s and abandoned the idea of painting in the Naturalist style like his contemporaries, Munch became, in technique, an artist of destruction. In 1885, inspired by the death of his sister, he began work on a canvas that would become The Sick Child. Initially it depicted a sickly redheaded girl (his sister) in a chair, her hand held by a woman, whose head is cast down in mourning. There were also interior details, such as a bottle, a glass, a flowerpot, a window and curtains. Slowly over time, however, Munch began to paint over all of these details, which he decided were extraneous. He blurred the figures, removing perspective in the process. Fixing his focus on the head of the sick girl, Munch delineated her features, only to repeatedly oil the canvas and scrape them off.

    By doing so, he was attempting to energize the canvas with the depths of his feelings, trying to put forth the essential qualities of loss, pestilence and grief, unmitigated by the distraction of exterior reality. This is the birth of Expressionism. When the painting was exhibited in Christiania it was considered by critics to be unfinished—or worse. One colleague asked, “What are all those strokes for? It looks like it’s raining.” Another said, “I think your painting is shit.” According to another, “It must have been painted by one almost mentally deranged.”

    Despite the criticism, Munch began to apply the techniques he used in The Sick Girl to the entirety of his work. He stripped away needless detail and perspective, allowing the raw texture of the canvas to show through and the preliminary marks of pencil and pastel to remain visible. In the majority of Munch’s canvases, eye contact is avoided, faces are often turned away or to the side, features and hands are inarticulate. Munch is trying to communicate artistically the failure to communicate in real life—a phenomena he experienced with his father, his critics and his romantic partners. It can be seen in the mourner’s downcast eyes in The Sick Child, and is repeated in Death in the Sickroom, an 1895 painting that seems reminiscent of the staging of a play, in which his family members, now adults rather than children, as they had been at their mother’s death, sit in waiting as a family member dies.

    In his early 20s, the artist had a short-lived love affair with a married woman whom he referred to as Fru Heiberg, or Fru H. in his diary. The disappointing outcome of the relationship led to humiliation and agony that remained as a specter over his subsequent relationships and his work. He chose to depict disconnect or bitterness between his male and female figures—even when a strong sense of sexuality is present. In The Vampire (1895)—a work initially titled Love and Pain until his friend, Polish novelist and poet Stanislaw Przybyszewski, noticed the painting’s vampiric qualities— a woman drapes herself languidly over a man’s back, her lips planted on the nape of his neck. He is pale, limp and unresponsive, while the pastel strokes of her red hair seem to glow with health. His state, which seems like near-death, means nothing to her. Of The Kiss (1897) August Strindberg, a close friend whom Munch met while living in Berlin, said it represented “the fusion of the two beings, the smaller of which, shaped like a carp, seems on the point of devouring the larger, as is the habit of vermin, microbes, vampires, and women.”

    Just as he tried to portray the inability of human beings to connect with each other, Munch also depicted human powerlessness and the horror of solitude. Of his inspiration for his most famous image, The Scream, Munch wrote in his diary, “I walked down the road with two friends. The sun went down, I felt it like a melancholy sigh. Suddenly the sky became blood red. I stopped. I leaned against the fence tired to death. I saw the flaming sky like blood, like a sword over the fjord and the town. My friends continued on. I stood there shaking in anguish. I felt it like a great endless scream through nature.” In the painting, the surrounding landscape and the figure reverberate with one another like the spokes of a tuning fork. Every stroke of the brush or pastel crayon, every curvature, every asymmetry (the nose, the eyes) put forth the notion that agony is uncontrollable and emanates from everything. The individual is left somewhere among it all, standing alone on the bridge. However, as Edgar Allan Poe showed some 50 years before in literature, true emotional horror portrayed in art is a benevolent force that comforts the reader or viewer. It takes what is scary about the dark, internal life and brings it out into the light.

    Munch’s global birthday party kicked off in June of last year, with the exhibition “Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye,” which first appeared at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt and then traveled to the Tate in London. Along with exhibiting many of his famous canvases, this major exhibition delved deep into Munch’s oeuvre in order to showcase some of his less-known personal fascinations and contributions to visual culture. “The Modern Eye” shed light on Munch’s forays into photography, his interests in spiritualism (the show reported a Ouija board session with Strindberg), science, and burgeoning X-ray technology. His 1895 etching Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm establishes this early fascination with seeing his insides and foreshadows the necessity of an actual X-ray of his hand taken at a Paris hospital in 1905. (There was a bullet lodged in his middle finger due to some non-fatal lover’s-quarrel gunplay.)

    After concentrating on one particular area of the artist’s vast and varied output with “Edvard Munch: Master Prints” in 2010, this spring the National Gallery of Art in Washington mounted “Edvard Munch: A 150th Anniversary Tribute” (through July 28). The exhibition features over 20 works from the museum’s collection. Among them are six different woodcut prints of the theme Two Women on the Shore, which was designed in 1898 and printed over a 15-year span with varying color and detailing. Also on view is a lithograph of Munch’s Madonna (1895, printed 1912/13)—another image that was propagated by the artist in various formats after its initial creation in oil. The haloed woman, whom Munch described as being seen from the viewpoint of her partner during sex, is in fact Dagny Juell, a 19th-century Penny Lane whom Munch met while living in Berlin and frequenting the Black Pig, a bar popular among the Continental avant garde. Juell, who is the model or inspiration for multiple Munch canvases, publicly left the artist for Strindberg, and then for Przybyszewski, whom she eventually married. Desiring to depict the feeling of jealousy on canvas, Munch painted himself with the couple in Anxiety in 1894. As it turned out, in yet another example of romantic gunplay gone awry, Juell was shot in the head by a lover in Tbilisi in 1901.

    In his hometown of Oslo, The National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design and The Munch Museum, which was opened 50 years ago for his 100th birthday, are launching a joint exhibition and related city-wide public programs running through October 13. On view will be some 250 works, making this the most comprehensive showing of his work to date—with the possible exception of an exhibition in Oslo in April 1889, in which Munch, in efforts to counteract the scrutiny and misunderstanding his work generated by previous shows, chose to mount everything he had ever created up to that point in his fledgling career—110 canvases and innumerable drawings, some executed at a very early age. That exhibition, which proved to be a failure, is what drove Munch to leave his homeland in 1889 to study in Paris, decamp to Berlin, and exhibit around Europe for the following two decades. After this sojourn and his discharge from institutionalization in 1909, Munch would return to Norway and remain there.

    The scope of the “Munch 150” exhibition makes it clear that although Munch would remain a controversial artist—and a brooding, and lonely figure—for the remainder of his life, his work did eventually bring him modest critical and financial success, even in his homeland, where it seems the breaks were the hardest to come by. Today, the Munch Museum manages the artist’s estate, which is presumably a very busy job. Though Munch is a reasonably prominent figure in the art-historical canon, The Scream—one of the most internationally recognizable images and the current record-holder for the most expensive artwork sold at an open auction (at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012 for $119.9 million)—far surpasses the artist’s own celebrity. It has been excessively pinned up, printed and parodied. A rudimentary Internet search for The Scream yields a version with nearly every popular American cartoon character taking the place of the screaming figure—Homer Simpson, Mario, and Scooby Doo have all screamed—as if it were a rite of passage. The image has been used to sell countless products, including M&M’s and Disney World. The “scream pose” even became the signature film still of child actor Macaulay Culkin in the 1990 movie Home Alone. When an original pastel rendition of the image was on view at The Museum of Modern Art in New York this past spring, it wasn’t just viewed by thousands of museumgoers, it was snapped at by thousands of camera phones as if it was a movie star sashaying down a red carpet.

    Perhaps its ongoing proliferation is due to viewers finding it humorous, overwrought, or, dare one say, crazy? Maybe they’ve just grown used to it as a trope. But, underlying all that, it seems that The Scream, no matter how it is being presented or to whom, holds some timeless and essential human truth, and that Munch, by baring his vision and his feelings, has done viewers an unforgettable service. The tempest of The Scream, and of Munch’s legacy, is still relentlessly blowing on its course. Soren Kierkegaard, the celebrated Danish philosopher of the early 19th century, whom Munch read and discussed in his diary, said, “Geniuses are like thunderstorms. They go against the wind, terrify people, cleanse the air.”

    Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: June 2013

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