‘’ From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity. ‘’
Toward the end of the 19TH century, Sigmund Freud, a renowned psychiatrist, was investigating unconscious phenomena and the influence of childhood events on the causation of neurosis. At about the same time, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863- 1944) began to express his inner world through his artistic creations, giving birth to an exceptional art style which would later be known as Expressionism.
Edvard Munch’s mother’s premature death from tuberculosis was one of the most painful events in his life. She died in 1868, leaving Edvard, who was five, his three sisters and younger brother in the care of her much older husband, Christian, a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism. Several years later, the death of his older and favorite sister Sophie, to whom he had become attached in her place, compounded his tragedy.
During Munch’s critical stages of development, his father became emotionally unavailable after his wife’s death. All those losses and trauma were intensified by the poverty experienced by the Munch family. Thereafter, Munch’s father experienced fits of depression, anger and quasi-spiritual visions in which he interpreted the family’s illness and difficulties as punishment of divine origin. He would often read to his children the ghost stories of Edgar Allen Poe, as well as the lessons in religion and history, instilling in young Munch a general sense of anxiety about death and morbid fascination with it. Although he lacked his father’s faith in God, he had nonetheless inherited his sense of guilt.
Munch’s precocious talent was recognized very early. His personality and his art evolved progressively. It can be seen from two self-portraits; a small three-quarters profile on cardboard, painted in 1881-1882, when he was 18, depicts the artist’s good classic looks- straight nose, strong chin, sensual lips with academic correctness. Five years later, Munch in a larger self-portrait is impressionistic and splotchy. His hair and throat blur into background, his outthrust thin and lowered gaze lend him an insolent air; red rims of his eyes suggests a boozy sleepless night, the beginning of a long descent into alcoholism.
His first sexual experience apparently took place in 1885, when he was 21, with Millie Thaulow, a wife of a distant relative. He was thrilled and maddened while their relationship lasted and desolate and tormented, two years after, when Millie ended it. Munch was fascinated by the theme of a forlorn man and dominating woman – Vampire (from 1893-94), and The Ashes (1894). In The Ashes, a woman reminiscent of Millie confronts the viewer, her white dress unbuttoned to reveal a red slip, her hands raised to the sides of her head, while a distraught lover holds his head in despair.
Although he began his artistic career as a student of Norwegian painter Christian Krogh, who advocated Naturalism, a realistic depiction of contemporary life, Munch developed a psychologically charged and very expressive style in order to transmit emotional sensations. Munch, as a restless soul himself, believed that a painter mustn’t merely transcribe external reality, but should record the impact a remembered scene had on his own sensibility. His personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures fed his creative work.
One of Munch’s finest self-portraits, a lithograph of 1895, depicts his head with clerical-looking collar, materializing out of a black background: a thin white band at the top of this piece contains the year and his name and a corresponding strip below features a skeletal arm. In an undated private journal he wrote:’’ I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies – the heritage of consumption and insanity – illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle’’. One of Edvard’s sisters spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness, and his brother, atypically robust for a Munch, died suddenly of pneumonia at 30. Only his younger sister, named Inger, who like him never married, lived into old age.
In 1889, Munch traveled to Paris on a state fellowship to study in the atelier of Leon Bonnat. Influenced as a young man by his exposure in Paris, he began to draw after Impressionists and Post-Impressionist painters such as Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose, sometimes, airy compositions differed dramatically from Munch themes of death and personal loss. But, he progressed toward simplified forms and blocks of intense color with the purpose of conveying strong feelings. In early 1890, in a huff, Munch quit the class of Parisian teacher who had criticized him for portraying a rosy brick wall in the green shades that appeared to him in a retinal afterimage.
In 1889, while he was still in Paris, Munch received a letter. He read that his father had died of a stroke. Munch once observed – the death unhinged him. He was sobered by the responsibility and gripped by remorse that he had not been with his father when he died. For his absence, he could not release his feeling of grief into a painting of the death scene, as he had done when his sister Sophie and his mother died. Night in Saint Cloud (1890), a moody, blue interior of his suburban Paris apartment captures his emotion and his state of mind; a shadowy figure in a top hat- his roommate Emanuel Goldstein, a Danish poet- stares out a window at the bright light on the Seine river. The evening light casts a symbolic pattern of a cross onto the floor, evoking the spirit of his devout father.
In 1890s, following his father death Munch embarked on the most productive and the most troubled stage of his life. Spending his time between Berlin and Paris, he undertook a series of paintings that he called The Frieze of Life, the most artistically significant and popularly renowned of his entire career.
He produced this series consisted of 22 works for an exhibition of Frieze in Berlin, 1902. The paintings bore such titles as Jealously, Despair, Anxiety, Puberty, Melancholy, Death in the Sickroom, and anthology The Scream, which he painted in 1893.
Munch’s The Scream is a Mona Lisa for our time, an icon of modern art. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and the values of Humanism, Munch defined our own age and how we see it- wracked with uncertainty and anxiety. It stands among an exclusive group, including Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Matisse’s Red Studio, comprising the essential works of modernist experiment and lasting innovation.
His painting of a twisted, sexless, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, recreated a vision that had grasped him as he walked along the road overlooking the city of Oslo, one evening in his youth with his two friends at sunset. It seems unlikely that he observed an actual person in anguish. As he later described it, the ‘’air turned to blood’’ and the ‘’faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white’’ (—) ‘’I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature’’.
During this potential period, his style varies dramatically, depending on the emotion he was trying to communicate in a particular painting. He turned to an Art Nouveau sultriness for Madonna (1894-95) and psychologically laden and stylized Symbolism in Summer Night Dream (1893). In his impressive Self-portrait with Cigarette in 1895, painted while he was feverishly engaged with the Frieze of Life, he employed the flickering brushwork of Whistler, rubbing and scraping at the suit jacket so that his body appears as evanescent as the smoke that trails from the cigarette he holds smoldering near his heart. In a moving evocation of Sophie’s death, Death in the Sickroom (1893), he adopted the bold graphic outlines of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse- Lautrec. He and his sister loom in the foreground, while his aunt and praying father, who is obscured by her chair, attend to the dying girl. Across the vast space that divides the living siblings, portrayed as adults, from their dying sister, the viewer’s eye is down to the vacated bed and the useless medicines around it.
Visiting Kristiania in 1898, Munch had met Tulla Larsen, who would become his cruel muse. She was the wealthy daughter of Kristiania’s leading wine merchant, and at the 29, she was still unmarried. He first set eyes on Tulla Larsen when she arrived at his studio in the company of an artist with whom he shares the space. From the outset, she persuaded him aggressively. In his telling, their affair began almost against his will. He fled to Berlin, and that across the Europe-she followed him. He would refuse to see her, and then succumb. Reconstruction of their tormented relationship has relied on Munch sometimes conflicting, but far from disinterested accounts. The Dance of Life (1899-1900), an homage of their relationship, set on midsummer’s night in Aasgaardstrand, the seaside village where he was with Millie Thaulow, and where he had a tiny cottage. A vacant-eyed male character, at the center of the painting, representing Munch himself, dances with a woman in red dress- probably Millie. Their stiff bodies maintain an unhappy distance, and their eyes do not meet. Tulla Larsen can be seen to the left, in a white dress, golden-haired, smiling benevolently. She appears again on the right side, but this time in a black dress; her countenance as dark as her dress with her eyes downcast in bleak disappointment.
Larsen longed for Munch to marry her. Hesitating, even he went so far as to make a grudging proposal, he finally escaped from her to Italy and eventually to Berlin, in 1902, to stage The Frieze of Life Exhibition.
The same year, in summer Munch returned to his cottage in Aasgaardstrand, seeking peace but drinking heavily and brawling publicly; he failed to find it.
After more than a year’s absence Tulla Larsen reappeared in his life. Firstly, Munch had ignored her overtures, until her friends informed him that she was in a suicidal depression and taking large doses of morphine, he agreed to see her. There was a quarrel, and the full story is unknown; somehow, he shot himself with a revolver, losing part of a finger on his left hand and also inflicting on himself a less obvious psychological injury. His anger intensified when Larsen, short time later, married an artist.
For instance, in his painting Golgotha (1990), prone to exaggerated feelings of persecution, he depicted himself nailed to a cross, magnified the fiasco in his mind, until it assumed an epic scale.
In the next few years, his drinking, which had long been excessive, grew uncontrollable. He wrote in his journal that ‘’ the rages were coming more, and more often now’’. Anguished as he was, he still managed to produce some of his finest work: Self- Portrait with a Bottle of Wine ( 1906) and tableau, executed in several versions, in which he uses himself as the model for the slain French revolutionary Marat, and Tulla Larsen is cast as Marat’s assassin.
In the fall of 1908, Munch collapsed in Copenhagen. Hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralyses on his left side, he was persuaded by his old roommate from Paris, Emanuel Goldstein to check himself into a private sanatorium on the outskirts of the city. There he regained some mental stability and reduced his drinking. He departed in May next year, stronger and eager to get back to his art.
Most of art historians would agree that the great preponderance of his best work was created before 1909. His late years will be less tumultuous but at a price of personal isolation. In the following period of his life, there were not as many poignant paintings as there had been, when he was involved in life.
Returning to Norway in 1909, Munch began to work on an important series of murals for the assembly hall at Oslo University. The Aula Decorations, as the murals are known, signaled Munch new determination to look on the bright side, in this case quite literally.
In newly independent Norway, Munch was praised as the national artist. Along with his new fame came wealth, but not serenity. Maintaining his distance from an alternately adoring and scornful public, Munch withdrew to Ekely, an estate on the outskirts of Oslo, defending his need for isolation as necessary to produce his work. At Ekely, he took up landscape painting, depicting the countryside around him, with bright color at first, later in bleaker tones.
Edvard Munch had never married, living alone on his estate for the last 27 years of his life, revered and increasingly isolated. He surrounded himself with his works that dated to the start of his long career. He called his paintings his children and hated to be separate from them.
After his death, 1944, at the age of 80, on the second floor of his house, behind locked doors, it was discovered a huge collection of 1,008 paintings, 15,391 prints, 4,443 drawings, along with lithographs and lithographic stones, etchings, woodcuts, copperplates and photographs. In a final irony of his difficult life, Munch is famous nowadays as the creator of a single image, which has obscured his overall achievement as a great and influential artist of modern art.
In self-portraits Between the Clock and the Bed from 1940-42, not long before his death, it could see what had become of the man who, hung back from ‘’the dance of life’’. Looking stiff and physically awkward, he stands wedged between a grandfather clock and a bed, as if apologizing for taking up so much space.
His ‘children’ arrayed the wall behind him, one above the other. Like a devoted parent, he sacrificed everything for them.