"We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least 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."
Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) was one of Norway’s most famous painters and printmakers. His art exposed the ecstatic peaks and agonizing valleys of the human condition. Munch drew heavy influences from Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and played a crucial role in the development of a style called Expressionism. Expressionism is primarily concerned with showcasing overpoweringly expressive emotions and relationships.
Munch in his studio, circa 1938.
Munch grew up in Oslo, in an impoverished home. He experienced several childhood tragedies, which would later inspire the sensuality and darkness evident in his work. Munch lost both his mother and oldest sister to tuberculosis. Shortly thereafter, his father developed a violent temper and fell victim to bouts of depression. These darker themes, including illness and death, came across in several of his paintings. Below is one of his earlier works, The Sick Child, which he began in 1885.
The Sick Child (1885)
This is the original version, the first out of six, which shows his sister Sophie on her deathbed. The smudged and faded colors give the viewer an impression of sickness and pallor. Munch also uses hazy lines, paired with an ominous darkness, to add to the emotive power of this work. The Sick Child received a lot of criticism, and only a single vote of confidence, from Hans Jæger, who called Munch’s “experiment” an “intuitive work of genius”.
In 1881, at age 18, Munch began design school, and shortly thereafter became associated with a group of artists and writers called the Kristiania Boheme. The group stood in opposition of bourgeois society and morality. In the late 1880s, Munch lived in Paris intermittently, followed by Berlin. During this time, he was involved in several romantic affairs, which prompted him to explore themes of sexual relationships, love, fertility, and drama. His 1894 work, Madonna, provided a dichotomy of a vibrant, frenetic energy, coupled with a mysterious, simmering passion. The naked figure is provocative, but her dark eyes also carry with them a sense of tragedy. The swirling black background also evokes feelings of a troubled soul.
I chose Edvard Munch because I wanted to learn more about a Scandinavian artist. My family and I lived in Sweden for quite some time, so I have deep connections to the region. The more I read about Munch, the more fascinated I was by his dark past, and his ability to convey such intense emotion through his paintings. And like myself, Munch is often described as an obsessive traveler. Lastly, I realized in my research process that Munch is artist to an incredibly famous piece of art: The Scream.
The Scream (1893)
The Scream is hailed as a cultural icon, and often interpreted to symbolize the anguish and anxiety of the modern man. Here is an excerpt from Munch’s journal, describing his inspiration for the painting:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Munch’s health gradually deteriorated from alcoholism and nicotine poisoning. In 1908, he was admitted into a psychiatric hospital due to a nervous breakdown. Munch passed away in 1944. In his will, he bequeathed the majority of his life’s work - 1000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 5000 watercolors and drawings, and 6 sculptures - to the City of Oslo. As of 1963, they have been on on display for the public at the Munch-Museet. Munch not only left behind a tremendous physical legacy of art for everyone to appreciate and interpret, but also showed how one can turn darkness into inspiration, and incredibly personal experiences into universally understood expressions.
The Art Book, Second Edition. Phaidon Press Limited: London, UK. 2012.
Clarke, Jay A.. Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT. 2009.
Holland, J. Gill. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI. 2005.