Frank Høifødt

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Indebted to Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Munch (1863-1944) searched for a new art of depth and authenticity. Today, "The Scream" has become a ubiquitous image of popular culture, simultaneously "appropriated" by an ironic postmodernity. Both extremes seem relevant in understanding the context of the spectacular price of $120 million that was paid for a pastel version of the image in spring 2012. The fame of "The Scream" has come to exceed the fame of the artist: this discrepancy seems to be diminishing, however, as large international exhibitions make viewers more familiar with the broader aspects of Munch's art and legacy. Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth, the Munch Museum and the National Gallery in Oslo will give a vast, joint presentation of the artist's work this summer.

SELF-PORTRAIT “À LA MARAT”. 1908-1909. 81 × 85 CM. MM, OSLO

Munch grew up in Norway's capital Christiania (later Kristiania, from 1925 Oslo). His father was a deeply religious army doctor. His mother, 20 years her husband's junior, died of tuberculosis when Edvard was five. His sister Sophie died of the same disease at the age of 15; Laura, a younger sister, was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. His brother Andreas died of pneumonia at the age of 30, and Edvard's own delicate health was an issue from the start. The relevance of these facts to an appreciation of Munch's art may be disputed; however, in the 1890s especially, he exploited sombre memories from his childhood in both his expressive images and poetic words: "Illness, Insanity and Death were the black angels that stood by my cradle"1. At the same time, it cannot be denied that his family was utterly supportive and culturally stimulating. In May 1884, his sister Laura records in her diary that she has been sent to the library to borrow Henrik Ibsen's play "Emperor and Galilean" for her bed-ridden brother Edvard - demanding reading for a 20-years-old.

Munch was able to take advantage of the limited opportunities that Norway offered to an aspiring artist, including free instruction by the dedicated realist Christian Krohg; the influence of his mentor is visible in Munch's early works. In 1885, Munch took his art to a new level with "The Sick Child", a radical break with the realistic idiom. Refering to his sister Sophie, he described how he struggled to revive "the first impression" in search of a valid painterly equivalent to a painful, personal memory2. Renouncing perspective and plastic form, he arrived at a composition formula reminiscent of an icon, the coarse texture of the surface clearly revealing all the signs of a lengthy and laborious working process. Official critics were harsh, and Munch was soon branded the enfant terrible among the young artists.

The mid-1880s were marked by a turning point both in his life and his understanding of art; at the time, Munch socialized with a gang of radical anarchists in Kristiania, who were admittedly a pale shadow of the contemporary nihilists in St. Petersburg 3. By then, Russian literature had earned the highest esteem, so it was not surprising that in 1883 Dostoyevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment" was translated into Norwegian. It immediately caught Munch's attention for its fathoming the depths of the human psyche. "Some pages are works of art in their own right," he asserted in a letter to a friend4. Late in his life, looking back at the 1880s, he pondered: "When will there be someone to portray these times? It would have to be a Dostoyevsky, or a mixture of Krohg, Jasger and perhaps myself, capable of portraying this Russian period in the Siberian city of the Kristiania that was then, and by the way, is still now." Hans Jasger was the chief figure of the "Kristiania Bohemians", who was even sentenced to imprisonment for a provocative roman a clef; not only did Munch paint Jaeger's portrait in 1889, but also, encouraged by the Bohemians' programme, "Thou shalt write thy life", Munch started writing intensively.

A large one-man-show in 1889 earned Munch a state scholarship to complete his training abroad, and he spent the following three winters in France. The post-impressionist breakthrough and various anti-naturalist experiments had a liberating effect: "The camera cannot compete with the brush and palette so long as it cannot be used in hell and in heaven"4.

"Night in Saint-Cloud" echoes the remorseful sentiment of Munch's notes from his first winter abroad: in November he had received the news of his father's sudden death. The image of a lonely figure in a dark interior is rendered in deep blue tones, reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler's nocturnal harmonies. The critics associated the work with the fin de siecle concept of "decadence". Munch began investigating impressionist and pointillist idioms in his scenes from Parisian boulevards and Kristiania's Karl Johan Street, and his brush captured the French Riviera in all its sensuous beauty. In this first French period, Munch painted a noble and austere portrait of his sister "Inger", as well as the key image of "The Kiss", and the eerie "Evening on Karl Johan". The latter clearly illustrates the current shift from realism to symbolism: "Symbolism - nature moulded by one's state of mind"5. The main street of the Norwegian capital is turned into a nightmarish setting for a tragic mood of urban modernity. A similar atmosphere is to be found in the famous breakthrough novel "Hunger" (1890) by one of Munch's acquaintances in the 1890s, the writer Knut Hamsun. Hamsun was also a great admirer of Dostoyevsky; with his early novel "Hazard" (1889), he was even accused of plagiarising Dostoyevsky's novel "The Gambler". In 1892, Munch would capture the gambling mania at the casino in Monte Carlo in both words and images.6

In 1902, quite unexpectedly, Munch received an invitation to exhibit in Berlin. A formidable scandal ensued, creating a name for Munch in the German capital. Deciding to remain in the city, he became part of an illustrious circle of artists and intellectuals who gathered at "The Black Piglet", which included the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg and the Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski. In this stimulating environment, he developed his own brand of expressive symbolism, creating some of his most famous images, like "Starry Night", "The Voice", "Death in the Sickroom", "Woman", "Anxiety", and "Vampire". Making up for a ruined original, Munch painted two new versions of "Puberty", the captivating image of a naked young girl sitting on the edge of a bed: confronting the viewer, she protectively covers her genitalia, an ominous dark shadow rising behind her.

The iconic version of "The Scream" was also painted in Berlin. All traces of realism are gone, the landscape is turned into a flat patchwork of colours, while wavy lines suspend all sense of stability, and the main figure is turned into a primitive sign confronting the viewer as primordial terror. Like the prose poems produced by his literary friends in Kristiania, Munch provided the image with a corresponding text, describing an experience where a sunset seems to trigger a terrifying revelation: "I was walking along the road with two friends - the sun was setting ... I felt as though a vast, endless scream passed through nature." Comments and interpretations of this arguably best known of his works abound; notwithstanding a variety of opinions, there is concensus on the crucial aspect of the image - its unique capacity to elicit a deeply personal response. "The Scream" was included in a thematic series "Love", a precursor to Munch's Frieze of Life.

In 1895, a large exhibition in Kristiania created a real stir. Munch's poet friend Sigbj0rn Obstfelder passionately defended him when his mental sanity was questioned in a debate. It also made a deep impression on Munch when the dramatist Henrik Ibsen, now an international celebrity, visited his exhibition, offering his sympathy and encouragement. Later, Munch would contend that his painting "Woman" (1894) had been a source of inspiration for Ibsens's last play, "When We Dead Awaken". The National Gallery acquired his "Self-portrait with a Cigarette", the very image that had prompted the discussion on Munch's sanity: the delicate hand holding the cigarette indeed seems to tremble from the hypersensitivity of this aristocratic mortal, emerging from a mysterious blue mist. The centre of controversy in the exhibition was "Woman Making Love", the iconic "Madonna". "Moonlight glides over Your Face -full of Worldly Beauty and Pain," Munch wrote in an accompanying text, "For it is Death offering its Hand to Life - a Chain linking the thousand Generations that are dead to the thousand Generations to come." "To me his Madonna picture is the very embodiment of his art," Obstfelder commented, "I believe one would have to go to Russian literature to find such a religious perception of woman, such a glorification of the beauty of pain."

"Madonna" was turned into a lithograph in 1895, as was "The Scream". Another significant lithograph from the Berlin period is "Self-Portrait with a Skeleton Arm", in which the round collar lends a priest-like quality to the head, luminescent against the velvety black background. The name and year inscribed in the upper part reads like an epitaph, in keeping with the sombre memento mori of the skeleton arm at the bottom. A formal likeness with a particular woodcut by the Swiss artist Felix Vallotton has often been pointed out - moreover, it's hardly coincidental that Valloton's print is a portrait of Dostoyevsky.

Munch's first attempts with graphics were intaglio prints based on some of his painted subjects. He soon turned to lithography; moving to Paris in early 1896, he had access to the best printers in the trade. While painting a new version of "The Sick Child" for a Norwegian collector, Munch also created a lithograph of the subject, singling out the girl's profile head. It was executed in a variety of subtle colour combinations, and ranks high in Munch's oeuvre. In a creative take on his woodcuts, he would partition the blocks with a fretsaw in order to print several colours simultaneously, akin to procedures used by Paul Gauguin. A good example is provided by Munch's many individual, slightly different versions of "Towards the Forest", which are as simple and evocative as they are singularily aesthetically subtle. In Paris, he made graphic portraits of several poets and programme posters for two Ibsen productions at the Theatre de L'Oeuvre, while a commission to illustrate Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" did not go beyond its initial stages. In 1897, Sergei Diaghilev, the famous impresario and "mid-wife" of modern art, staged an exhibition of Scandivanian art in St. Petersburg, including Munch's self-portrait from 1895. In a letter to Munch, Diaghilev implores the artist to also support the inclusion of the new version of "The Sick Child" in the exhibition7. "Who this Diaghilev is, nobody seems to know," writes the "Aftenposten", the leading newspaper in Kristiania, clearly sceptical of this strange Russian and his self-willed choice of artworks. Diaghilev favoured the newest of the new - "one is tempted to say, the unfinished," laments the critic, repeating "Aftenposten"'s recurring critique of Munch's art.

At the turn of the century, a time of restless experimentation, Munch was increasingly preoccupied with his Frieze of Life project, producing a number of large and decorative canvases. "Metabolism", provided with a wooden frame with carved reliefs, was first exhibited as "Adam and Eve", testifying to the important role that the biblical myth of the fall of man played in Munch's pessimistic philosophy of love. Echoing his pietistic upbringing, titles such as "The Empty Cross" and "Golgotha" (both c. 1900) also reflect metaphysical currents of the late 1890s. Munch's "The Dance of Life" is a daring and deeply personal take on the synthetist style of the Nabis, as well as a revitalized version of his own "Woman" from six years earlier. Painted at the very turn of the century, a series of landscapes from the Kristiania fjord, decorative and sensitive studies of nature, represent highlights of Nordic symbolism. The following summer, in Asgardstrand, Munch painted the classic and suggestive "The Girls on the Bridge" - his most beloved motif.

In the early years of the new century, Munch's career was gradually becoming established in Germany. Exhibiting at the Berlin Secession in 1902, he presented a "complete" Frieze for the first time: "Seeds of Love", "Love's Blossom and Decay", "Life's Anxiety" and "Death". Portraits now comprised a significant part of his output, bringing the artist some financial stability. The group portrait "Dr. Linde's Sons" is a masterpiece of modern portraiture, commissioned by a truly invaluable supporter. But such artistic success was accompanied by personal discord: Munch was suffering the after-effects of a traumatic love affair that had ended with an accidental shooting in 1902, after which one finger on his left hand was permanently crippled. His obsessive thoughts were quieted by alcohol.

In 1906, following the death of Henrik Ibsen, Munch was commissioned to make set designs or "mood sketches" for Max Reinhardt's production of "Ghosts" at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Munch's revealing "Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine" from this period clearly suggests a kinship with Osvald, the main character in Ibsen's drama. While Gustav Schiefler was busy cataloguing the graphic works of the rising star, Munch himself was spending more and more time at various spas

Finally returning to Norway in 1909, Munch settled in the coastal town of Krager0. The National Gallery in Kristiania acquired a considerable number of his works, confirming his belated recognition in his native land. With his creative approach to external reality, Munch translated the rugged coast and pine forests into paintings with a new boldness and vitality.

The 1912 Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne was the first comprehensive presentation of European modernism, and Munch was honoured with a room of his own there; 20 years after the scandal in Berlin, he was raised to the level of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne as one of the pioneers of modern art. At home, he continued to experiment and to expand his range of subject matter; sunbathers, farmers, workers and animals were a prominent subject for some time. When his decorations at the University's festival hall were inaugurated, Munch purchased the estate of Ekely on the rural outskirts of the capital and moved there. The four volume publication "Edvard Munch: Collected Paintings I-IV" (Gerd Woll, 2008) revealed the vast body of works from this late period: portraits of friends and collectors, rural landscapes, and nudes. His fascination with Henrik Ibsen never waned: a large number of drawings are related to "Peer Gynt", woodcuts to "The Pretenders", while quite a number of drawings, graphic works and paintings are more or less explicitly related to "John Gabriel Borkman". Another significant category is his late self-portraits. In the entirely casual looking and comparatively lesser-known "Self-Portrait in Hat and Coat" all attention is drawn to the detailed and expressive face. The monumental "Towards the Light", or "The Human Mountain" preoccupied Munch for many years; the composition harks back to the symbolism of the 1890s and echoes his written statements: "My art gave meaning to my life. Through it I searched for the light and I felt I could bring light to others."

For Munch's 70th birthday his lifelong friend, the art historian Jens Thiis, published a monumental biography of the artist. "Dostoyevsky's importance to me has been beyond measure. More than many others put together," Munch pointed out emphatically in a letter to Thiis. "Ibsen and Dostoyevsky, I believe they were the most important." Living in relative seclusion late in life, Munch was lucky to have friends who shared his passion for the Russian writer. "Crime and Punishment" had been a continuous inspiration since the 1880, and on numerous occasions Munch expressed his affection for "The Brothers Karamazov"; however, "Prince Myshkin" (The Idiot) seems to have struck the deepest chord. "Djasvlene", a Danish edition of "The Devils" (The Posessed) was on his bedside table when he died.

In the ceremonial "Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed", the artist stands upright beside the grandfather-clock, depicted without arms, as if to signal his final retreat from this world. The conspicuous bed becomes charged with references to the pivotal moments in the cycle of life: birth, sickness, love, and death. In the room behind the old artist, his artworks are bathed in a golden light. Over the bed, behind the door, hangs the bluish study of a nude; the humble figure is also depicted - twice! - half-way up the mountain in the programmatic "Towards the Light". Munch actually had this painting hanging over his bed; it was given the title "Krotkaja", after a short story by Dostoyevsky.


  1. Munch Museum (subsequently MM) N 2759, 3r
  2. The diary of Laura Munch, May 1884, MM archive
  3. Edvard Munch: "Livsfrisens tilblivelse", Oslo 1928, pp. 9-10
  4. The image of the Russian nihilists given by Norwegian media was not without an element of romantic fascination. See Frank H0if0dt: 'The Kristiania Bohemia reflected in the art of the young Edvard Munch', in "Edvard Munch. An Anthology" (ed. Erik M0rstad), Oslo 2006.
  5. Letter from Munch to his friend Olav Paulsen, dated March 11 1884. Copy in MM
  6. Quoted from Ragna Stang: "Edvard Munch. Mennesket og kunstneren", Oslo 1982, p. 51.
  7. Munch's aphorism, formulated e.g. in MM N 570
  8. From sketchbook dated 1890-1894: MM T 127
  9. More on the relationship between Dostoyevsky's novel and Munch's texts and images in Allison Morehead: "'Are there bacteria in the rooms of Monte Carlo?' The Roulette Paintings 1891-93", in "Munch becoming 'Munch'" (cat.), Munch Museum 2008, pp. 121
  10. Munch Museum presented an exhibition centred around their version of "Puberty". See "Edvard Munch. Pubertet/Puberty", Munch Museum 2012
  11. MM T 2760-56r
  12. Suggested literary inspiration include Nietzsche, S0ren Kierkegaard, the Bible - and Raskolnikov. For the latter, see Arne Eggum: "Livsfrisen fra maleri til grafikk", Oslo 1990, pp. 234-235
  13. Sigbj0rn Obstfelder: "Edvard Munch. Et fors0g", Samtiden, 1896.
  14. Undated letter from "Serge Diaghilew" to Munch ("Mon cher Munch .."), written on stationery marked "Victoria Hotel, Kristiania", MM. Preparing for his exhibition, Diaghilev visited the Norwegian capital in summer 1897.
  15. "Skandinavisk Udstilling i St. Petersburg", in "Aftenposten" (Aften), October 28 1897
  16. Munch's Frieze ("Eiene Reihe von Leben-sbildern") was presented under these four headings at the exhibition in Berlin.
  17. MM N 539
  18. Undated draft of letter to Jens Thiis (c. 1932), MM N 2094
  19. In 1891, Munch received a book from a Danish poet friend. He informs him that the book is included in his "little library", consisting of "the bible, Hans Jager and Raskolnikow". Letter from Munch to Emanuel Goldstein, dated Feruary 2 1892 (MM N 3034).
  20. Stated in Hans Dedekam: "Edvard Munch", Kristiania 1909, p. 24, and confirmed in "Edvard Munch som vi kjente ham" (see next note), by Professor K. E. Schreiner, Munch's doctor, and Johs Roede.
  21. See Johs Roede: 'Spredte erindringer om Edvard Munch', in "Edvard Munch som vi kjente ham. Vennene forteller", Oslo 1946, p. 52. See also Martin Nag: 'Dostojevskij og Munch' in "Kunst og Kultur" 1993, no. 1, note 1, p. 54.
  22. A photograph (B 3245) confirms that the blue nude was attached to the huge canvas at some point. See "Collected Paintings", Vol III, p. 847.

Dostoyevsky's story "Krotkaja" was published in Norway in 1885; a new edition was published in 1926, with the title "Skriftemal" (Confession). According to Munch's friend and lawyer Johs Roede, he was the one to suggest the title "Krotkaja" for the painting, approved by Munch. See above: Johs Roede (1946), p. 53.





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