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Great European Lives: Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch in his studio with canvas. - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY examines the life of Edvard Munch, December 12, 1863 – January 23, 1944

When the Norwegian government took possession of Edvard Munch’s estate outside Oslo in line with the artist’s wishes following his death at the age of 80 in 1944, explorations of the upstairs rooms soon revealed an extraordinary trove: more than 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings and 15,000 prints stacked against walls and filed in racks, a remarkable archive for any artist, let alone one of the most prolific and stylistically versatile of the modern age.

Despite this huge body of work Munch, who was so personally attached to his art that he rarely relinquished any, is destined to remain known almost solely for one image, The Scream, a raw, primeval expression of angst and despair that graces postcards, tea towels and fridge magnets across the world. It’s arguably the most famous artwork since the Mona Lisa, has been a frequent target for thieves and in 2012 Munch’s 1895 pastel depiction sold at auction for a shade under $120 million.

The Scream’s popularity could be explained by how it is both intimate and personal yet speaks to everyone while remaining the archetypal image for turbulent times, of which there have been plenty since Munch produced the two paintings, two pastels and a scatter of lithographs. The central figure in the foreground is so crudely expressed it has no significant physical features or discernible gender, nothing beyond the all-encompassing scream. It is an image of pure emotional despair and the figure is Munch himself: the incident actually happened.

‘I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set,’ he said. ‘Suddenly, the sky turned blood red and I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably weary. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the blue-black fjord. My friends went on walking while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. It was then that I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.’

That infinite scream provided a persistent soundtrack to Munch’s life, underpinned as it was by deep-set anxiety, grief and the constant awareness of death’s larcenous character. Such misery was, he felt, the only possible inspiration for his work.

‘My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,’ he wrote. ‘Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’

The roots of Munch’s melancholy lay in the early deaths of his mother and sister. Tuberculosis claimed them both, his mother when the artist was five and his sister Sophie, two years older than him, when he was in his early teens.

‘Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle,’ he wrote. 
’I felt always that I was treated unjustly, without a mother, sick, and with threatened punishment in hell hanging over my head.’

That sense of impending eternal damnation emanated from his father, Christian, a military physician (who often fainted at the sight of blood) and religious fundamentalist who claimed to experience frequent spiritual visions and was convinced that the tragedies befalling his family were some kind of divine punishment for unspecified sins.

A sickly child, Munch’s memories of his formative years were of long, dark winters spent either ill or convalescing at home for months on end while his father read out interminable passages from the bible at his bedside, occasionally interspersed with stories by Edgar Allan Poe. When he later began painting to relieve the boredom the factors that would define his life were all in place.

In 1886, at the age of 23, he exhibited in Oslo the first great manifestation of these factors, The Sick Child, an image of his sister on her deathbed. The painting, which he would revisit, rework and reproduce many times over the next 40 years, showed the ailing Sophie propped up by a pillow as a grief-stricken older woman, most likely their aunt Kate who acted as a mother figure to the Munch children, sits at her side with her head bowed.

There’s a dignity about the dying girl, she looks pale and weak but her face is raised towards her aunt almost as if she’s the consoler.

The impressionist style was widely criticised at the time by art critics and gallery visitors, who interpreted the broad vertical brush strokes and particularly the blobs of paint representing the women’s clasped hands as indicative of an unfinished work, but this was an artist truly finding his voice.

It was the influence of his friend the anarchist philosopher Hans Jaeger – controversial figurehead of a group of Oslo bohemians who advocated, among other things, a 19th century version of free love and the abolition of marriage – that led to Munch immersing more of his inner self into his work, a methodology that produced The Sick Child.

‘We want more than a mere photograph of nature,’ wrote Munch. ‘We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing room walls. We want to create, or at least to lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity, an art that arrests and engages, an art created of one’s innermost heart.’

He spent years moving between Berlin, Paris and Oslo, working and studying while drinking and fighting his way through long boozy nights of hellraising. In 1902, for example, his stormy four-year relationship with Tulla Larsen, the only significant woman in his life to whom he wasn’t related, ended in drunken chaos when he refused to marry her and she threatened to kill herself. Munch attempted to pre-empt her but succeeded only in picking up his revolver and blowing off the top of one of his fingers.

Yet still he continued producing outstanding art. In Berlin during early 1890s he began work on a series he called The Frieze of Life, beginning with a group of six paintings on the theme of love, and The Scream appeared for the first time in 1893.

‘No longer should interiors be painted, people reading and women knitting,’ 
he’d written in his journal in Paris on 
the day his father died in 1889. ‘There should be living people, breathing and feeling, suffering and loving.’ The Scream would be the most overt and ultimately most successful expression of that philosophy and eventually critics began 
to take heed.

‘With ruthless contempt for form, clarity, elegance, wholeness and realism, he paints with intuitive strength of talent the most subtle visions of the soul,’ wrote one reviewer of his first Frieze Of Life series.

As he entered middle age the weight of anxiety, grief and fast-living in the most exciting cities on the continent became overwhelming and in 1908 a breakdown left Munch hospitalised in Copenhagen for eight months of strict dieting and electrical therapy. When he left the 
clinic his doctors instructed him for the benefit of his health to return to Norway and steer clear of the fleshpots of Paris and Berlin.

He went without complaint, settling for the last 27 years of his life at Ekely, his estate a few miles northwest of Oslo. The art he produced there reflected both his relocation and his calmer mood, his work becoming lighter – although still far from light – in tone, and featuring rural scenes and portraits that attuned perfectly with the new Norwegian nationalism that had flourished after the nation’s independence from Sweden in 1905. He was still riven with anxiety and uncertainty however, and would remain so for the rest of his days.

‘The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright and my path has led me along the edge of a precipice, a bottomless pit,’ he wrote in his journal at Ekely. ‘From time to time I’ve tried to get away from the path, thrown myself into the throng of life among people, but every time I have had to go back to the path along the cliff top.’

The Scream, the most eloquent and dramatic expression of that walk along the precipice, continues to embellish times of national and international anxiety and uncertainty. In April a rare lithograph goes on display at the British Museum.

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