(1863 - 1944)
Dec. 12, 1863, Löten, Nor.
Norwegian painter and
printmaker whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes greatly
influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His painting "The
Scream" (1893; see photograph)
can be seen as a symbol of modern man's spiritual anguish.
Munch was born into a
middle-class family that was plagued with ill health. His mother died when he
was 5, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis--the latter event
being recalled in his first masterpiece, "The Sick Child" (1885-86).
Munch's father and brother also died when he was still young, while another
sister developed mental illness. "Illness, insanity and death," as he
said, "were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied
me all my life."
Munch showed a flair
for drawing at an early age but received little formal training. An important
factor in his artistic development was the Christiania Bohème, a circle of
writers and artists in Christiania, as Oslo was then called. Its members were
characterized by a belief in free love and a general opposition to bourgeois
narrow-mindedness. One of the older painters in the circle, Christian Krohg,
gave Munch both instruction and encouragement. But Munch soon outgrew the
prevailing naturalist aesthetic in Christiania, partly as a result of his
assimilation of French Impressionism
after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact with the work of the Postimpressionist
painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec from about 1890.
Munch's own deeply
original style crystallized in about 1892. The flowing, tortuous use of line in
his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau, but Munch
used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for profound psychological
revelation. The outraged incomprehension of Norwegian critics was echoed by
their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his
paintings there in 1892 at the invitation of the Union of Berlin Artists. The
violent emotionalism and unconventional imagery of his paintings created a
bitter controversy. The scandal, however, helped make his name known throughout
Germany, from where his reputation spread internationally. Munch lived mainly in
Berlin in 1892-95 and then in Paris in 1896-97, and he continued to move around
extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910.
Paintings of love
At the heart of Munch's
achievement is his series of paintings on love and death. Its original nucleus
was formed by six pictures exhibited in 1893, and the series had grown to 22
works by the time it was first exhibited under the title "Frieze of Life"
at the Berlin Secession in 1902. Munch constantly rearranged these paintings,
and if one had to be sold, he would make another version of it. Thus in many
cases there are several painted versions, in addition to prints based on the
same images. Though the Frieze draws deeply on personal experience, its themes
are universal: it is not about particular men or women but about man and woman
in general, and about the human experience of the great elemental forces of
nature. Seen in sequence, an implicit narrative emerges of love's awakening,
blossoming, and withering, followed by despair and death.
Love's awakening is
shown in "The Voice" (1893), where on a summer night a girl standing
among trees is summoned more by an inner voice than by any sounds from a boat on
the sea behind her. Compositionally, this is one of several paintings in the
Frieze in which the winding horizontal of the coastline is counterpoised with
the verticals of trees, figures, or the pillarlike reflection across the sea of
sun or moon. Love's blossoming is shown in "The Kiss" (1892),
in which the faces of the kissing man and woman melt so completely into each
other that neither retains any individual features. An especially powerful image
of the surrender, or transcendence, of individuality is "Madonna"
(1894-95), which shows a naked woman with her head thrown back in ecstasy, her
eyes closed, and a red halo-like shape above her flowing black hair. This may be
understood as the moment of conception, but there is more than a hint of death
in the woman's beautiful face. In Munch's art, woman is an "other"
with whom union is desperately desired, yet feared because it threatens the
destruction of the creative ego.
Munch's acute awareness
of the suffering caused by love is clear from such titles as "Melancholy"
(c. 1892-93), "Jealousy" (1894-95), and "Ashes"
(1894). If isolation and loneliness, always present in his work, are especially
emphasized in these pictures, they are equally so in "Death in the Sick
Room" (1893-95), one of many paintings about death. Here the focus is not
on the dying child, who is not even visible, but on the living, each wrapped in
their own experience of grief and unable to communicate or offer each other any
consolation. The picture's power is heightened by the claustrophobically
enclosed space and by the steeply rushing perspective of the floor.
The same type of
dramatic perspective is used in "The Scream,"
or "The Cry" (1893), which is almost certainly Munch's most famous
It depicts a panic-stricken creature, simultaneously corpselike and reminiscent
of a sperm or fetus, whose contours are echoed in the swirling lines of the
blood-red sky. In this painting anxiety is raised to a cosmic level, ultimately
related to that intuition of death and the void which was to be central to
Munch's massive output
of graphic art--consisting of etchings, dry point, lithographs, and woodcuts--began
in 1894. The principal attraction of printmaking was that it enabled him to
communicate his message to a much larger number of people, but it also afforded
him exciting opportunities for experimentation. Munch's prints closely resemble
his paintings in both style and subject matter. Munch's art had evident
affinities with the poetry and drama of his day, and interesting comparisons can
be made with the work of the dramatists Henrik Ibsen
and August Strindberg, both of whose portraits he painted.
Munch suffered a
nervous breakdown in 1908-09, and afterward his art became more positive and
extroverted but hardly ever regained its previous intensity. Among the few
exceptions is his haunting "Self-Portrait: The Night Wanderer" (c.
1930), one of a long series of self-portraits he painted throughout his life. An
especially important commission, which marked the belated acceptance of his
importance in Norway, was for the Oslo University Murals (1909-16), the
centrepiece of which was a vast painting of the sun, flanked by allegorical
images. Both landscapes and men at work provided subjects for Munch's later
paintings. This increased emphasis on the outside world may well have reflected
a greater personal maturity, but artistically Munch was no longer in the
vanguard. It was principally through his work of the 1890s, in which he gave
form to mysterious and dangerous psychic forces, that he made such a crucial
contribution to modern art. Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings,
prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo, which erected the
Munch Museum in 1963. Many of his finest works are in the National Gallery (Nasjonalgalleriet)
Munch was a leader in
the revolt against the hollow naturalism of 19th-century academic painting. The
legacy that he bequeathed to Expressionism and to modern art in general lay
particularly in his sense of art's purpose. In his best work, he bared his soul
to an extraordinary degree, but it was precisely this intensity of
self-exploration that made possible the authentic creation of an art addressing
universal aspects of human experience. Munch was heir to the traditional
mysticism and anxiety of northern European art, which he re-created in a highly
personal art of the archetypal and symbolic. His work speaks to the typically
modern situation of the individual who has been cut dizzyingly free from the
restrictions and comforts of any generally accepted system of belief.
April & May 2006, n.º 136
The Pain Painter
By Henrik Bering
|Read this article, here||
Arlindo Correia at the National Gallery, Oslo 11-7-2004
YALE £25 £22.50
We are all now used to reading literary biographies which painstakingly set out to prove that a writer's life was identical with his oeuvre and that the books were wholly autobiographical. So it's an interesting experience to see this well-worn literary technique applied to Edvard Munch, the one truly great painter produced by Norway and indeed by the four Scandinavian countries. Sue Prideaux is well equipped for the task: part Norwegian, fluent in the language, with a great-uncle, Thomas Olsen, who was one of Munch's most loyal patrons. She grew up with his art if not with his life.
This first full biography written in English shows, with painful clarity, that his art is compulsively autobiographical. Every time Prideaux produces a nugget of information so bizarre that it seems not only over the top but thoroughly ben trovato there is a note giving the source in the vast Munch archives in Oslo, since he was also an exhaustive verbal recorder of his life.
Rarely in the canon of Western art has there been so much anxiety, fear and deep psychological pain in one artist. That he lived to be 80 and spent only one period in an asylum is a tribute not only to Munch's physical stamina but to his iron will and his innate, robust psychological strength.
Munch was born in 1863, so sickly that he was immediately baptised in case he did not survive. His mother, 23 years younger than his father, produced five children but died, aged 30, of the TB rife in both 19th-century Norway and her family. The father, Christian, was nearly 50 when Edvard was born, He had graduated from serving on coffin ships to being an army doctor, despite being unable to stand the sight of blood. He was also a deeply Pietist Christian zealot and strict disciplinarian who, when beating his children for minor infractions, would invoke the image of their blessed mother who saw them from heaven and grieved over their misbehaviour. Christian used to read Dostoevsky and Poe to his small children, and was a hopeless economic provider, moving endlessly from one insalubrious flat to another and sending the children out to beg money from their richer relatives. His maternal grandfather had died insane, with spinal TB and Edvard feared for most of his life that he would die of the syphilis that was equally rife and also a precursor of insanity.
The trauma of the loss of his mother was compounded a year or so later by that of his beloved sister Sophie, the posthumous model for one of his greatest paintings, The Sick Child. All his life, he kept the chair in which she died. His brother died at 30 and his sister Laura had to be institutionalised with schizophrenia. Only one of his siblings survived him, his sister Inger, whom, with his maternal aunt Karen, he supported once he could make a living as a painter, with whom he corresponded constantly and lovingly, but whom he could not bring himself to visit.
His education was rudimentary as he entered the best schools but was expelled, not for moral turpitude, but because, being constantly ill, his attendance was so bad he couldn't keep up. Yet his artistic gifts, largely untaught, manifested themselves at seven and, at 13, he was accepted at the Art Association, an artists' club where he learnt by copying the works on display. Aged 16, he entered the Technical School because he was good at maths and physics but again left because of illness. It was only then that he decided to become an artist and already he hated the then obligatory varnishing of every oil surface. "No more brown sauce" were his words, echoing Goethe who used the same phrase in his exploration of colour theory in 1810.
Shortly after this, round about the time Ibsen published Ghosts in 1881, Munch entered the Bohemian circle of Kristiania (it did not become Oslo until 1925). His principal mentors were the rumbustious and highly successful painter Christian Krohg and the sinister, syphilitic Hans Jaeger, a stenographer in the Norwegian Parliament. The acknowledged leader of the group, Jaeger was an intellectual wild man, a nihilist who believed that he should drive both his enemies and his disciples to suicide. His effect on Munch happily did not involve suicide but Munch admitted in later life that Jaeger's influence on him had been profound.
Munch lost his virginity to a well-connected army wife who made him feel guilty as an adulterer and deeply jealous as she simultaneously carried on with other men. Add to this the alcohol he consumed in heroic quantities, the time he spent in brothels and the temptations of a Bohemian crowd, and it's a miracle that this handsome but frequently sickly youth survived at all, let alone lived to be 80.
Once he began to show his pictures, he always had a tiny group of supporters who enabled him to survive psychologically more or less intact even though he was always on the breadline. He sold an early work to the nascent Norwegian National Gallery and got two state scholarships, one of which stipulated that he had to learn to draw, which took him to Paris where he studied the work of others but took few lessons.
Paris was followed by Berlin and the heady days of The Black Piglet tavern with Strindberg and the beautiful femme fatale Dagny Juel. She ditched both Munch and Strindberg to marry the charismatic Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski and was later murdered by a fraudulent Polish lover. Munch's relationship with Strindberg was extraordinary. There was intense mutual admiration but, in the end, paranoia induced fear and suspicion on both sides which caused a rift. Both loved and feared women. Strindberg actually married three of them but as Munch described it: "I have always put my art before everything else. Often I felt that Woman would stand in the way of my art. I decided at an early age never to marry."
The Swede put the Norwegian into his books and plays in a thoroughly unflattering light. When Munch lithographed him he labelled him Stindberg, which means, in Norwegian, "mountain of hot air". Yet each acknowledged his debt to the other and, given Munch's fear of "Vampire women", there are several paintings in the great Frieze of Life sequence which bear traces of Strindberg's influence as well as the autobiographical elements of the recognisable women in Munch's life. As with Strindberg, and all devoted paranoiacs, some of those who Munch believed had harmed him had indeed done so, notably Tulla Larsen who had made the first advances and who had, in stalker fashion, done everything possible to turn her lover into her husband. This included threats of breach of promise, fake suicide attempts and the catastrophic pistol episode - no one knows who fired the shot - when the bullet lodged in the middle finger of Munch's left hand. This left the hand that held his palette and his etching plates permanently maimed, necessitating a glove for the rest of his life. (This event inspired the magnificent Death of Marat painting.) No wonder he declared that women had nutcracker muscles in their thighs and reduced men to soup.
Munch was, at least until he checked himself into Doctor Jacobsen's psychological clinic in Copenhagen in 1908, a compulsive frequenter of brothels; he once spent an entire Christmas in one. It is a wonder that he escaped the syphilis he feared, but Jacobsen diagnosed only alcoholism as the primary cause of Munch's temporary insanity. Munch ruefully accepted that he would have, in future, to confine himself to "tobacco-free cigars, alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women". But, according to Prideaux, he resisted Jacobsen's psychological probings and effected his own mental cure at the clinic. His stay coincided with a hugely successful show in Kristiania with 60,000 Kroner worth of sales. Munch paid for a celebratory dinner for his friends at his favourite Norwegian watering hole, the Grand Hotel, and kept an open telephone line to his Copenhagen bedside so that he could join in the fun.
Munch had great success in Germany via various avant garde Jewish dealers and enlightened rich patrons, but the post-First World War hyper-inflation ruined them and, despite his early enthusiasm, Goebbels, who wrote him an egregious fan letter on his 70th birthday - in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power - dropped him as soon as the Nazi policy of pillorying Entartete Kunst (Decadent Art) came in. The 80 or so Munchs in German collections were held to official ridicule and then sold on the international market, including Norway, to raise hard currency for National Socialism.
Despite that, the Quisling-led government in occupied Norway during the Second World War tried to make Munch the figurehead of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped. The government commandeered one of his major houses, failed to get to his hoard of paintings but, on his death, as the author puts it, "hijacked" his corpse and burial so that instead of a simple interment in the family plot, he was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags.
The years of his success and wealth were lived frugally in a large house at Ekely, whose locked second floor contained his bequest to Norway of thousands of works of art. He had a succession of "poison-free women", a series of beautiful models whom he painted with undiminished erotic joy and sexual tension.
Munch said that his paintings were his children, even though he gave many of them a somewhat Spartan upbringing, deliberately leaving them not only unvarnished but exposed to the elements in his vast outdoor studio or hung on walls, unframed and with nails through them. His vast heritage of great paintings and lithographs exists as both testament and record of his life. He once wrote: "Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul."
Prideaux has written a life which goes a long way towards upholding his aim and anyone who wants to know how and why he painted as he did should read this book.
September 25, 2005
Biography: Edvard Munch by Sue Prideaux
EDVARD MUNCH: Behind the Scream
by Sue Prideaux
Yale £25 pp391
In old age, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) had such a dread of silence that the radios in his house were never switched off. Often two played in one room, tuned to different stations. Best of all, he loved the noisy interference between stations when transmission ceased. What was it he no longer wanted to hear, he who had listened so intently to the private scream of the soul tormented by jealousy, grief, anger or fear of death and had portrayed it unforgettably in his art?
At the Munch Museum in Oslo you can buy a plastic inflatable version of the figure in The Scream. Repackaged by commerce, this icon of anxiety and despair becomes a humorous toy or gift. Munch would, I think, have been amused. Although convinced he was doom-laden, he leavened his autobiographical writings with comedy, and in his art he liked to play iconoclastic jokes. He inserted a naked women into the frame he drew around his portrait of Strindberg and called the playwright “Stindberg” (“mountain of hot air”). The sitter, when they next met, placed a revolver on the table. Both details, in subsequent printings, were duly altered.
Munch moved in an atmosphere of heightened drama. Those around him indulged in a fin-de-siécle cocktail of drugs, madness, suicide, sexual experimentation, nihilism, anarchism and spiritualism. Much can be deduced from his art, but the facts surrounding his life remain obscure to an English-speaking audience. Though he sought to portray communal emotions, he claimed that his work fitted together “like the pages of a diary” . A biography was, therefore, needed to uncover the turbulent experiences that tempered his art. Sue Prideaux now provides this, making use of a mass of hitherto unused material. The result is a magisterial portrait of a deeply troubled man. It is both humorous and tragic in its account of Munch’s abortive relationships with women, his dependence on drink, and his struggle for success and recognition. The conflicts within him are set in the context of late 19th-century Norway, with its emergent nationalism, its growing religious doubt and its contested move towards female emancipation. The breadth of Prideaux’s inquiry is impressive, as are her insights and understanding. An established novelist, she knows how to give us the resonant fact. We learn, for instance, that Christian Munch, Edvard’s father, opposed his son’s decision to study art and go to Paris, and that the longstanding conflict between them made painful the farewell outside the family flat. But on the steamship, Munch spotted his father watching his departure from a densely shaded space. There the incident might have ended, but one further detail is added: Christian had put on his best suit.
In his paternal role, Christian had infected the family with his religious anxiety. As a child, Edvard was made to believe that his dead mother watched everything he did. “I came frightened into this world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people,” he said. Aged five at the time of his mother’s death from TB, he, too, nearly died of it seven years later. Shortly after his recovery, his favourite sister Sophie fell victim to the disease. As she had in effect replaced his mother, a desolate longing for her remained. He kept the chair in which she died (now in the Munch Museum) all his life.
The piety, poverty and puritanism that dogged his childhood eventually gave way to a more liberal and bohemian environment. He was much helped in this move by the polemicist Hans Jaeger whose logic, Munch said, “was as sharp as a scythe and as cold as an icy blast”. Meanwhile in his art, Munch rejected “twigs and fingernails”, by which he meant the love of detail and high polish employed by realist landscape and portrait painters. He began to simplify his forms. “One must paint from memory,” he insisted. “Nature is merely the means.” He never married, although one of his mistresses, Tulla Larsen, tried to blackmail him into doing so. “I’m so unsuited to be with anybody,” he prevaricated. When in old age his friends tried to remedy his unhappy situation, he ob jected: “My sufferings are part of my self and my art . . . their destruction would destroy my art.” By then a European reputation, wealth, honours and far-reaching influence could not distract from his dominant theme — the commonality of human loneliness.
Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream
Yale, £25, 392 pp
Reasons to be gloomy
Martin Gayford reviews Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux.
On the evening of Edvard Munch's 60th birthday, in 1923, it was suggested that a torch-lit procession should do him homage at his house. Munch hired a taxi to drive him round and round the town where he was living until the threat had lifted. He was not a sociable man. He was, on the contrary, the epitome of a tormented, isolated Nordic genius. And he had plenty to be gloomy about.
"Illness, insanity and death were" he wrote, "the black angels that hovered over my cradle." He was brought up in Kristiania - later renamed Oslo - by his father, a penniless army doctor. The family lived on the brink of outright poverty. His beloved mother died of tuberculosis when he was five; and his favourite sister Sophie perished of the same disease when he was 12. Munch himself very nearly died too, in his boyhood. So much of his early life was spent in bed that in later life he preferred to sleep in a chair (this fear of beds was far from being his only phobia).
Munch almost died from lung complaints on several occasions in adulthood. But he was a tougher specimen than he seemed. He survived TB, malnutrition, Spanish flu, many years of alcoholism, numerous fistfights and a minor gunshot wound, to die old and full of honours in 1944 at the age of 80.
Munch spent many years during his twenties and thirties in a state of near destitution, not eating properly for weeks at a time, nor knowing where the money to pay the rent was going to come from. One sitter recalled Munch's easel being seized by a creditor; the painter calmly continued to work, using a chair instead. Often, during that period he required half a bottle of port just to get him started in the morning. For a period in the early 1900s he was drunk more or less continuously.
In some ways, he strikes one as a Van Gogh who lived. Although the two never met, their careers ran parallel. Both came from northern Protestant backgrounds, each attempted to create a spiritual art in the wake of Impressionist realism. It is also pretty clear from this highly readable and fact-filled biography that Munch suffered from Bipolar Disorder, or - as it used to be called - manic depression.
All his symptoms check - violent mood swings, periods of high excitement alternating with lethargy and depression, hallucinations, delusions, heavy drinking and irritability. Actually, the last is a considerable understatement. Munch not only got into many fights - sometimes with total strangers - he once fired a loaded shotgun at a friend with whom he had quarrelled, missing but giving himself (and presumably the other fellow) a bad shock.
One of the most sensational episodes of a career not lacking in drama came in 1902 when one of his mistresses - a wealthy Norwegian woman named Tulla Larsen - apparently shot him in the left hand, shattering one of his fingers. Or at least that is the interpretation favoured by Sue Prideaux in this biography. She is strongly opposed to Tulla, whom she describes as "stalking" Munch. Certainly, this woman pursued the painter over several years and through a number of countries but there was something to be said on her behalf.
Munch, altogether, showed a marked reluctance - as people now say - to commit. He grew up in Bohemian circles in Kristiania in which free love was advocated, and enthusiastically practised. Described as the "handsomest man in Norway", Munch had in addition a fetching air of aloofness, vulnerability, talent and doom.
He was a wow with the women, but had no happy, long-lasting relationship with any of his innumerable mistresses - unless it was with certain models in his later years (here the evidence is missing). Essentially, Prideaux argues, he saw women as a threat to his freedom, work, and peace of mind. In this dark misogynistic attitude, he was in accord with his sometime friend, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg.
In the case of the shot finger, Prideaux believes that Tulla Larsen pulled the trigger, but Munch later wrote an account suggesting that he did it himself - in which case it would be a self-mutilation parallel to Van Gogh's ear-amputation. A few years later, in 1907, after plumbing depths of alcoholic degradation, he checked himself into a mental hospital in Denmark.
When he emerged, he was at least partially cured - though this can have owed little to the treatment he received - which consisted largely of baths in unlikely liquids such as dilute carbonic acid.
On his doctor's advice, he gave up drink, tobacco, and "poisonous" women - which seems to have done him good, as a man if not as an artist. His greatest period as a painter coincided with his maddest, drunkest phase; his later decades were much more tranquil, lived in austere seclusion despite the fact that he was now wealthy and famous. But his work was far less intense.
There are too many small errors in this, the first life of Munch in English, and signs of uncertainty in dealing with both the psychiatric and the art historical background. But it is packed with information and event. Few biographies of artists can be described as gripping. This often is.
Martin Gayford's book on Van Gogh and Gauguin will be published next year by Fig Tree/Penguin
By Ginanne Brownell
Oct. 17, 2005 issue - A skeletally thin figure, hunched in what could be midmotion, stands in a darkened blue-black room. Part of his face is bathed in soft light, but his eyes remain in shadow, haunting charcoal sockets aimed straight ahead. His defined nose and thin, pursed lips hint at the striking youth he was, but now, with his gray hair and scraggly overcoat, he seems a pathetic figure, resolute in his unhappiness and scornful of the darkness. The deep green flooring is painted to look as if it is on a steep slant, making it that much more difficult for the man to stay upright. The world, it seems, has turned against him. Or is it, on closer inspection, he who has turned his back on the world?
"The Night Wanderer" by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of dozens of self-portraits that the Norwegian artist made during a career that spanned more than six decades. Though "The Scream" is by far his best-known work—it was the most reproduced image of the 20th century—it is his self-portraiture that shows the true depth and breadth of Munch's talent. Many of those paintings are displayed to striking effect in "Edvard Munch by Himself" at London's Royal Academy of Arts (through Dec. 11). "Munch said, 'My pictures are the pages of my diary'," says Sue Prideaux, author of the new biography "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream." "He always had this ambition to paint what he called the modern life of the soul." Wandering through the exhibition, which goes in chronological order, feels very much like uncovering layer by layer the soul of a talented yet desperately tormented man, obsessed with his sexuality, health and mortality. "He felt that [his works] gained tremendously by being hung together [and], like the notes in a symphony, they combined to a great whole," says Prideaux.
From an early age, Munch was deeply influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Munch told a friend that no one in the arts had yet traveled as far as Dostoevsky "into the mystical realms of the soul." He aimed to be the first. In "Self-Portrait Beneath a Female Mask," Munch tries to understand his sexual psyche. Painted in 1893, the work depicts a rather staid image of the artist wearing a high-collared shirt and a plain black suit jacket. Above, the mask of a red-cheeked harlot peers temptingly over him. His face betrays nothing, yet the use of such a deep red color—of blood, embarrassment or arousal—conveys his innermost longings. The painting also reflects his complicated relationships with women, which were shaped in large part by the premature deaths of his mother and beloved older sister. He witnessed his younger sister's mental breakdown, and had a volatile love affair that ended with a self-inflicted bullet wound to his left hand in 1902.
Indeed, Munch's life reads rather like a cliched resume of the angst-ridden artist: remote father, mental breakdown, failed relationships, alcoholism, poor health. "Golgotha" is a startling, almost juvenile rendering of his life in fin de siecle Europe; painted during his stay in a sanatorium, it depicts the artist on a cross staring out at the viewer. A crowd arrives from two different directions, giving a perfectly structured flow to the piece despite the chaos and carnival-fun-house faces. It conveys Munch's sense of being an outsider even in a crowd.
Not all the works are so grim. In the large oil "Self-Portrait With Brushes," Munch depicts himself as utterly confident, standing in formal clothing, his hands assertively clasped in front of him. Yet it does not truthfully reflect his frame of mind: he painted it while in the throes of alcoholism and depression. Four years later, in 1908, he suffered a breakdown and had to convalesce in a Copenhagen clinic. Though the work is a forced, almost tongue-in-cheek image of himself, it is probably the way most people saw him: as a handsome, famous, successful painter. Munch's works deal in precisely this disparity between the self we reveal to the outside world and the one we allow ourselves to know. "He is looking at himself and trying to touch the universal nerve, so that we all look at his self-portraits and recognize ourselves in some way," says Prideaux. In the end, that makes for a surprisingly uplifting exhibition, one that allows for empathy toward others and, ultimately, for ourselves.
22 October 2005 08:52
YALE £25 (391pp) £22.50
Coming across the causeway, the figure has hands to ears, as if to block the sound of its voice. Like the iconic image of the napalmed girl in Vietnam, Munch's Scream is the more piercing for being silent. Was it prompted by Schopenhauer's challenge to visual art, to reproduce a scream? Munch denied this, though the idea could have come via Nietzsche or Strindberg or another angry pessimist howling with despair at the meaninglessness of life. But it was also a physical experience. Walking at sunset, Munch saw clouds over the fjord dripping with blood, and "stood trembling" as he heard a great scream pass through nature.
To coincide with the exhibition of Munch's self-portraits at the Royal Academy, Sue Prideaux uses her part-Nordic origins to good effect in the first English-language biography of the artist, whose works hung in the home of her great-uncle, shipowner Thomas Olsen. The repressive yet assertive atmosphere of Lutheran Norway, as it worked free from Swedish rule, is vividly evoked. As child, Munch was denied emotional expression, told not to cry when first his mother then his sister died, for they had gone to a better life with God.
He grew a stiff, impassive shell, then rebelled in joyless bohemianism. In Oslo bars, Edvard mixed with nihilists, anarchists and satanists without espousing their creeds. In Paris, his art struggled for a way past impressionism, influenced by Gauguin to use colour and line for expression not depiction. He painted thinly, having a hatred of images trapped beneath gravy-like varnish. Critics mocked; impoverished relatives wondered why he did not use his talents more productively.
He was painting his soul - to convey inner anguish, in a post-Romantic rejection of bourgeois and high-art values. To the end of his life, he felt as if two vultures were tearing at his soul, not in the classic form of good and evil, it seems, but equal, opposing forces of despair and self-loathing.
To escape - and ironically to encourage - his demons, he lived on the edge, preferring drink to food, "fiends" to friends and faithless lovers to a loving wife. A sequence of women with advanced views shaped a turbulent private life during which he refused normal affections by reference to hereditary "taint" in the form of syphilis or insanity. However, echoes and foreshadowings of both Dorian Gray and Francis Bacon raise thoughts of a gay subtext to his relationships.
His magnum opus, The Frieze of Life, sets out a view of love, sexual disillusion and cruelty followed by sadness, anxiety, fear, crucifixion and drawn-out death. As themes, these are conventional enough, but the designs and handling make them modernist beacons of impressive power. Munch saw them as the children he had forsworn.
His disorderly life and inchoate images owed a great deal to alcohol. At one level, the shapeless figures and smudgy strokes look the work of an artist who could neither see nor hold a brush steadily. And the first half of his life story chronicles such intake of absinthe that one is astonished to find he lived to 80.
He seemed bent on indirect suicide, like Ibsen's Lovborg, unable to perform it heroically. Then, at 45, Munch saved himself. Hallucinating, paranoid, he went into rehab in Copenhagen and dried out. At the same time, he grew rich, as his works started to sell.
He settled on the edge of the Oslo fjord, living as a recluse, but creating obsessively; his house yielded more than 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings, 16,000 prints. Was there a cost to sobriety? He wrote that without anxiety and illness he was rudderless: "My sufferings are part of myself and my art." Prideaux's narrative grows less animated as his life quietens down. It ended during the Nazi occupation of Norway. Curiously, though his works were hung in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, Goebbels was a fervent admirer. Munch's funeral was hijacked and swathed in swastikas. He had never expected to live so long.
Jan Marsh's latest book is 'Black Victorians' (Lund Humphries)
Sunday, December 18, 2005
as dismal as his most famous painting
Reviewed by Christine Temin
Behind The Scream
By Sue Prideaux
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS; 320 Pages; $35
Other than selling at auction for a ridiculous record price, the surest way for a painting to make news is to be stolen. And other than a couple of Vermeers, the most famously stolen painting of our era is Edvard Munch's "The Scream," the perfect picture for a neurotic age.
While the figure in "The Scream" gushes misery, the equally miserable Munch tried to internalize his. Born in 1863 to a respectable Norwegian family ruled by a father obsessed with religion, Munch's youth could have been scripted by the authors who later so influenced his painting: Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Strindberg. The painter's mother died when he was 5; Sophie, his beloved sister and surrogate mother, followed in 1877; the year before, he himself had almost succumbed to tuberculosis.
In her new "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream," the art historian and novelist Sue Prideaux captures the gloom of the Nordic artist's life and work. While the book doesn't add significantly to the general knowledge of either, it's a gripping read. (Not, though, to be given to hypochondriacs or the hospitalized.)
Munch's early pictures met with vicious criticism. In prim Norway, the image in the 1884 "Morning" -- a fully clothed woman sitting on a bed -- was deemed in certain quarters unfit to be shown "where one's wife or daughter might see it," Prideaux points out, because the sitter was considered "vulgar."
Rebelling against this prudery, the young artist joined Oslo's bohemian ranks and then shipped out to Paris in 1885. He began to see the events of his life in pictorial terms, and if he couldn't paint them, they almost hadn't happened. During one of Munch's sojourns in the French capital his father died. The son couldn't grasp the fact: He had missed the image.
While on long visits to France and Germany he met leading cultural figures including Mallarmé, Delius and Strindberg. He exhibited and occasionally even sold works. Sexually charged paintings including "The Vampire" and "Madonna" won praise for their emotional authenticity from practitioners of a young profession, psychiatry.
Poor for almost his entire life, he nonetheless hated to part with the paintings he considered his children -- sometimes evil children to be locked away in the attic. Once sold, he missed them terribly. As something of a condolence, and as a way to try to make money, he took up printmaking. Because once he latched onto a subject he couldn't let go -- there are several painted versions of "The Scream" -- he made prints of his paintings. He was even more inventive in woodcuts than with a paintbrush, using the grain of the wood as an integral part of the image, which appeared almost to be an apparition growing out of a tree.
Prideaux's lengthy tome soon settles into a numbing rhythm: death, disease, poverty, a sliver of sunlight, then back to despair. Her language can provide relief from this relentless cycle. On arriving in the South of France, she writes, the artist would have seen "violet-shadowed orange-trees, roads pink as almond petals, the booming blue of the sky and the extravagant brilliance of the peacock sea." Such lyricism is rare, though. She generally sticks to the facts, to Munch's travels and travails, the circumstances that led to the making of the paintings and the stories of the sitters in them.
When she gets to "The Scream," she does indeed go "behind" the picture. Munch's own description of the hallucinatory episode that inspired the iconic painting -- "Clouds over the fjord dripped reeking blood" -- is familiar. Prideaux fleshes out the murky poetry by pointing out that the artist was standing on a hill near Oslo that was home both to the city's slaughterhouse and its insane asylum, where Munch's sister Laura was by then an inmate. Prideaux's description -- "The screams of the animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear" -- suggests a soundtrack for the painting.
Munch's troubled relationships with women can be summed up in a single grisly incident, the equivalent of Van Gogh's cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute. In 1902, Munch was called to the bedside of a supposedly suicidal woman who had been stalking him for years. What happened in that room was, and ever will be, known only to the two. What is sure is that a gun went off and when Munch emerged, he was missing the middle finger of his left hand -- and a great deal of blood. Surgeons stitched up the wound. Munch refused anesthesia. It turned out that the stalker had faked her attempted suicides. The finger remained a hideous stump the painter hid for the rest of his life. In one of the telling details that keep this densely written book readable, Prideaux mentions that after Munch's death, in 1944, more than 40 pairs of gloves were found in his house.
Christine Temin is an arts writer in Boston.