Taken from a previous article, today’s artist is Edvard Munch. I know just one of his famous works ‘the Scream’ and it will be interesting to see what else this man did.
Edvard Munch was born on the 12th of December 1863 in Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway as the second child with four siblings. The family moved to Christiania (now Oslo) in 1864 when his father, Christian Munch, was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch’s favourite sister in 1877. Often ill for much of the winters and kept out of school, Edvard would draw to keep himself occupied, and received tutoring from 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 tales of Edgar Allan Poe. The military pay his father received was very low and the family lived in poverty, which featured in many of Munch’s early drawings and watercolours.
Christian’s positive behaviour toward his children, however, was overshadowed by his morbid pietism. Munch wrote, “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to 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.”The oppressive religious milieu, plus Edvard’s poor health and the vivid ghost stories, helped inspire macabre visions and nightmares in Edvard, who felt death constantly advancing on him.
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. 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. Munch himself adopted an undogmatic stance toward art, writing in his diary his simple goal: “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 Christiania where his teachers were sculptor Julius Middelthun and naturalistic painter Christian Krohg. In 1883, Munch took part in his first public exhibition and shared a studio with other students.He came under the influence of Hans Jæger, 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. After numerous experiments, Munch concluded that the Impressionist idiom did not allow sufficient expression. He found it superficial and too akin to scientific experimentation. Under Jaeger’s commandment that Munch should “write his life”, meaning that Munch should explore his own emotional and psychological state. Munch 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.
Regardless of these new views, Munch still struggled to define his style throughout the 1880s and early 1890s.His idiom continued to veer between naturalistic, as seen in Portrait of Hans Jæger, and impressionistic, as in Rue Lafayette. His Inger On the Beach (1889) hints at the simplified forms, heavy outlines, sharp contrasts, and emotional content of his mature style to come. 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 Léon Bonnat. Munch arrived in Paris during the festivities of the Exposition Universelle (1889) and roomed with two fellow Norwegian artists. Munch was enthralled by the vast display of modern European art, including the works of three artists who would prove influential: Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec—all notable for how they used color to convey emotion. Munch was particularly inspired by Gauguin’s “reaction against realism” and his credo that “art was human work and not an imitation of Nature”, a belief earlier stated by Whistler.
That December, his father died, leaving Munch’s family destitute. He returned home and arranged a large loan from a wealthy Norwegian collector when wealthy relatives failed to help, and assumed financial responsibility for his family from then on.
By 1892, Munch formulated his characteristic, and original, Synthetist aesthetic, as seen in Melancholy, in which color is the symbol-laden element. During four years in Berlin, Munch sketched out most of the ideas that would comprise his major work, The Frieze of Life, first designed for book illustration but later expressed in paintings. He sold little, but made some income from charging entrance fees to view his controversial paintings.Already, Munch was showing a reluctance to part with his paintings, which he termed his “children”.
In December 1893, Unter den Linden in Berlin held an exhibition of Munch’s work, showing, among other pieces, six paintings entitled Study for a Series: Love. This began a cycle he later called the Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death. Around the turn of the century, Munch worked to finish the “Frieze”. He painted a number of pictures, several of them in larger format and to some extent featuring the Art Nouveau aesthetics of the time. He made a wooden frame with carved reliefs for the large painting Metabolism (1898), initially called Adam and Eve. This work reveals Munch’s preoccupation with the “fall of man” myth and his pessimistic philosophy of love. The entire Frieze showed for the first time at the secessionist exhibition in Berlin in 1902.
“The Frieze of Life” themes recur throughout Munch’s work but find their strongest outpouring in the mid-1890’s. In sketches, paintings, pastels and prints, he taps the depths of his feelings to examine his major motifs: the stages of life, the femme fatale, the hopelessness of love, anxiety, infidelity, jealousy, sexual humiliation, and separation in life and death. Munch hated to part with his paintings because he thought of his work as a single body of expression. So to capitalize on his production and make some income, he turned to graphic arts to reproduce many of his most famous paintings, including those in this series.
Still attracting strongly negative reactions, in the 1890s Munch did begin to receive some understanding of his artistic goals, as one critic wrote, “With ruthless contempt for form, clarity, elegance, wholeness, and realism, he paints with intuitive strength of talent the most subtle visions of the soul.”One of his great supporters in Berlin was Walter Rathenau, later the German foreign minister, who greatly contributed to his success.
In 1896, Munch moved to Paris, where he focused on graphic representations of his “Frieze of Life” themes. He further developed his woodcut and lithographic technique. Munch’s Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm (1895) is done with an etching needle-and-ink method also used by Paul Klee. Many of the Parisian critics still considered Munch’s work “violent and brutal” but his exhibitions received serious attention and good attendance.His financial situation improved considerably.
Munch returned to Christiania in 1897 where he also received grudging acceptance, where one critic wrote, “A fair number of these pictures have been exhibited before. In my opinion these improve on acquaintance.”In 1903-4, Munch exhibited in Paris where the coming Fauvists, famous for their boldly false colors, likely saw his works and might have found inspiration in them. When the Fauves held their own exhibit in 1906, Munch was invited and displayed his works with theirs. During this time, Munch received many commissions for portraits and prints. After an earlier period of landscapes, in 1907 he turned his attention again to human figures and situations.
However, in the autumn of 1908, Munch’s anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and brawling, had become acute. As he wrote later, “My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go.”Subject to hallucinations and feelings of persecution, he entered the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. Munch’s stay in hospital stabilized his personality, and after returning to Norway in 1909, his work became more colorful and less pessimistic. Further brightening his mood, the general public of Christiania finally warmed to his work, and museums began to purchase his paintings. He was made a Knight of the Royal Order of St. Olav “for services in art”. His first American exhibit was in 1912 in New York.
As part of his recovery, Dr. Jacobson advised Munch to only socialize with good friends and avoid public drinking. Munch followed this advice and in the process produced several full-length portraits of high quality of friends and patrons—honest portrayals devoid of flattery. He also created landscapes and scenes of people at work and play, using a new optimistic style—broad, loose brushstrokes of vibrant colour with frequent use of white space and rare use of black—with only occasional references back to his morbid themes.
Munch spent most of his last two decades in solitude at his nearly self-sufficient estate in Ekely, at Skøyen, Oslo. To the end of his life, Munch continued to paint unsparing self-portraits, adding to his self-searching cycle of his life and his unflinching series of snapshots of his emotional and physical states.
The outbreak of World War I, found Munch with divided loyalties, as he stated, “All my friends are German but it is France that I love.” In the 1930s, his German patrons, many Jewish, lost their fortunes and some their lives during the rise of the Nazi movement.
In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was seventy-six years old. The Nazis labelled Munch’s work “degenerate art” (along with Picasso, Paul Klee, Matisse, Gauguin and many other modern artists) and removed his 82 works from German museums.With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation. Seventy-one of the paintings previously taken by the Nazis had found their way back to Norway through purchase by collectors (the other eleven were never recovered), including The Scream and The Sick Child, and they too were hidden from the Nazis.
Munch died in his house at Ekely near Oslo on January 23, 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. His Nazi-orchestrated funeral left the impression with Norwegians that he was a Nazi sympathizer.The city of Oslo bought the Ekely estate from his heirs in 1946 and demolished his house in May 1960.
When Munch died, he bequeathed his remaining works to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum at Tøyen (it opened in 1963). The museum hosts a collection of approximately 1,100 paintings, 4,500 drawings, and 18,000 prints, the broadest collection of his works in the world. It currently serves at Munch’s official Estateand has been active in responding to copyright infringements, as well as clearing copyright for the work, such as the appearance of Munch’s The Scream in a 2006 M&M advertisement campaign. The U.S. copyright representative for the Munch Museum and the Estate of Edvard Munch is the Artists Rights Society.
One version of The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in 1994. In 2004 another version of The Scream along with one of Madonna were stolen from the Munch Museum in a daring daylight robbery. All were eventually recovered, but the paintings stolen in the 2004 robbery were extensively damaged. They have been meticulously restored and are on display again.
My favourite images: