Edvard Munch; The Dark Wages of the Soul.

Painted in 1893, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” is one of the most recognized  and iconic paintings in history. Munch created several versions of this “Expressionist” masterpiece, in various media. What is less commonly known about the painting, is that, for Munch, it was an exact portrayal of his inner world. “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turns red as blood…tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish-black fjord. My friends went on walking, I lagged behind, shivering in fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature…I was stretched to the limit-nature was screaming in my blood…for several years, I was almost mad…”  In fact, mental illness ran in Munch’s family and he exhibited signs of depression and anxiety at a young age. He was born in Norway in 1863. His father was a military doctor with a poor salary. The family was forced to move often, and lived in a state of virtual poverty. Edvard’s mother died when he was five, followed by his favorite sister, some years later. The five siblings were then raised by their father and aunt. Edward was a sickly child  who often missed school, and was already pummeled, at a young age, by night terrors. His father helped tutor him in history and literature, and was fond of Edgar Allan Poe. He loved telling the children chilling ghost stories, which had a deep effect on young Edvard, who already found his father extremely pious and morbid. While out of school so much, Edvard turned to art to distract himself. Edvard said, “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” One of his sisters was diagnosed with mental illness as a child, and Edvard was convinced he inherited mental disease from his father, whom he called,” tempermentally nervous and obsessively religious – to the point of psychoneurosis.” Edvard left behind his training in engineering to become an artist,” to explain life and its meaning to myself.” Nonetheless, for years, he was dependant financially on a father who found his work sacreligious, and particularly, his nudes, offensive.

Edvard  enrolled at the local art academy, which had been founded by a distant relative. As he worked through early explorations of Naturalism and Impressionism, he “adopted a bohemian lifestyle and started drinking excessively and brawling.” His fights with his father and the initial negative reception of his art, took it’s toll. He had trouble having, and maintaining, normal relationships with women, something that was to plague him always. His attitute towards women, as displayed in his art, over his early and middle years, particularly, was full of ambivalence, shame and fear, mixed with desire.

Edvard soon found Impressionsim, with it’s focus on surface reality, too superificial.  He was put off by it’s scientific exploration of the technical aspects of light and color, at the expense of  inner truth and emotion. From the beginning, art, for him, revolved around an exploration and expression of his inner state. He began recording his interior emotional life in what he called a ” Soul Diary.”  This led to the beginning of his “Soul Paintings.”  The very first was,” The Sick Child,”  recalling his sister’s death.

At this point, he was stylistically influenced by Post-Impressionism, but he was worlds away in terms of subject matter. He finally made it to Paris, in 1889, and was immediately enthralled with Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Toulouse – Lautrec. These three used color to portray emotion, not to mimic the physical world. He resonanted with Gauguin’s idea that art was a reaction against realism, and that, “art was human work and not an imitation of nature.” From Van Gogh he saw how color could surround objects in emanations of their inner state. From Toulouse – Lautrec he saw the garish female denizens of the more tawdry side of Parisian nightlife.

Munch was soon forced to return to Norway by the death of his father.
He inherited financial responsibility for his family. With the help of a loan from a collector, he was able to stabilize the situation, before leaving for Berlin. It was here that he formulated his mature style, with it’s condensed pictorial space, simplified forms and compositions, and the use of vibrant, expressive color to make all elements of a painting subservient to, and part of, the emotional state he was attempting to communicate, whether in landscape, portraits, or nudes.

Munch’s work started to be recognized. His notices were often negative, and the public scandalized, but he was not ignored. Munch’s awkwardness portraying women, and his unresolved boyhood feelings of lust, shame, and anxiety continued, unabated. These were usually the pieces that provoked the loudest reactions. Women were  ”femmes fatales,”  sinners, or temptresses, torturing his very soul.

In Berlin, Munch started a series called, “The Frieze of Life.”  The now well known paintings, “The Scream,” “The Kiss,” ” The Vampire,” and  ”Gologtha,” below, were all a part of this group.

The fall of man, hopelessness, despair, and the impossibility of love were central themes of the series. Back in Norway, Munch started a serious relationship with a “liberated, upper class” Norwegian woman. However when she wanted to marry, his demons and sense from childhood, that he didn’t deserve happiness, reared up. In 1900, he abandoned her, and moved back to Berlin from Norway. And it was in Berlin, this time, that he really hit his stride, and started finding consistent success selling his work. Although Munch had  gotten press and notoriety for years, much of it had been negative. This finally started to change. His paintings had always evoked strong reactions, among both his peers and the public. Now, he was becoming well respected, not simply notorious.

His sense of the hollow, bleakness of life, however, is always there in his cityscapes and landscapes.

Above, are two of his moody depictions urban scenes from “The Frieze of Life.” I have always thought the painting on the right, above, was a perfect visual compliment to T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste Land.” Below, are more of his bleak landscapes.

This painting, left, which Munch was only able to do many years later, depicts the death of his beloved sister, Sorn.

In 1906, Munch was invited to display his work with the Fauves at their exhibit in Paris. It was a successful show, and he started to achieve real financial security. That, however, did nothing to pacify his state of mind. Amid more excessive drinking and brawling, Munch had a “nervous breakdown” that required hospitalization. However, he did recover from this breakdown quite well, and over the next several years was in better mental health than he had been for some time. Munch retreated to Oslo, and for the most part, lived quietly in the country, outside of town. In the 1930′s and 40′s, the Nazi’s labeled his work  ”degenerate.” They invaded Norway in 1940, and Munch, who had a huge collection of his own work, feared they would be confiscated. His cache wasn’t, but many of his paintings elsewhere, were. Luckily, over seventy of these works were eventually repatriated  to Norway by sympathetic collectors.

Throughout his life, Munch painted many self portraits. Some show him as a normal man of his time, others, reflect the dpeth of despair and torment that he often suffered.

Munch died in 1944 and bequeathed his work to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum to house 1100 paintings, 4500 drawings, and 18,000 prints; an incredible repository of art.

Munch’s greatest  pictoral influence was on the German Expressionist movement. But what he really represents, I believe, is the first systematic attempt to access and manifest the deepest workings of the human psyche over the entire course of an artistic career. Munch’s only interst in art was in understanding and expressing his deepest feelings and states of mind. Everything in his pictures served that end alone. Munch reveals to us a profoundly troubled soul whose torment may sometimes make us want to look away, but whose courage and single-mindedness, astound us. He fought his battle to the limits of his endurance so that, perhaps, we might be spared a little of the darkest wages of our own souls.

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26 Comments on "Edvard Munch; The Dark Wages of the Soul."

  1. Kathy says:

    I realized after reading this post, just how iconic “The Scream” really is. I remember from my childhood, as clearly as the “Mona Lisa”. It was a frightening image as a child, and very haunting. Now, when I look as his body of work, I wish I had known him, not sure why, but that’s my reaction. I feel the same about the filmmaker, Lars Von Trier, who comes from the same part of the world. I’m attracted to their dark, bleak, depressive, and yet incredibly artistic and evocative characters, and both of their abilities to use their inner demons to create such strong works of art, and also reveal so much about their own inner struggles. Great post. Makes me want to visit Norway – soon.

  2. Kathy says:

    I wanted to add something else to my comment. As an artist, I admire others painters, sculptors, filmmakers, writers, etc. who are willing to share their dark sides with the rest of the world. It is a brave and risky thing to undertake, and I know, from talking to many friends who are artists, how long it takes and how much armor has to be shed, to let that side emerge.

    • A Husk of Meaning says:

      I know what you mean about certain, dark expressive works of art.
      I think it relates to the power of the catharsis that takes place. Since the beginning of the old Greek Tragedies, that darkness and horror, even, has been a crucial element and purpose behind the history of many art forms and the very reason for their existence. Those who take on our collective, heaviest burdens, can lead us through the pain to place of lightness, relief, appreciation and recognition of what is good and sweet in life. We look at piece like “The Scream,” are first horrified, knowing those feelings within us, but then feel liberated, elevated, almost, high, our burden recognized, shared, manifested, then relieved through the cathartic process. It’s also the basis for how much of religion operates.

  3. well he certainly wasnt monet, but there is a strange beauty and depth to his work . his most famous. perhaps over famous .the scream is still screaming every time i see it. thats quite amazing to still scream after one is gone. but his body of work is very intense he can really but a feeling on in his work. .

    • David Leeds says:

      His only purpose was to express his inner state, not to create “pretty pictures.”
      You might not call his work,”beautiful,” but it certainly plants the hook in you. Through the transformative power of emotion and catharsis it can take you to a place of beauty.

  4. Sue W. says:

    I often wonder if we would have lost the amazing expressionism of Munch, Van Gogh, etc. if they had had the availability of drugs like anti-depressants and not been so mentally tortured…or if their amazing abilities would still have shown through?

    • David Leeds says:

      I think there’s no question that personally, their lives would have been a lot easier. I also think their genius would have shone through. It’s fascinating to consider, however.

    • Kathy says:

      Yes, but I, like Sue, wonder how much it would have changed the actual “content” of their work? I agree that their genius would have shown through anyway, but possibly in a way that might have been quite a bit different visually.

  5. David Leeds says:

    Kathy, I’m sure both you and Sue are right. His style would certainly be different.
    It’s hard to say how, though. They both would have felt things they felt, just maybe with a little of the “edge” taken off. It’s particularly hard to think of any change in Van Gogh’s style. One certainly wouldn’t want to visually mess with one of the most unique and masterful painters of all time…

    • Kathy says:

      It’s not that I’d want to visually mess with anyone’s style, but it is an interesting question to ponder nevertheless. Particularly with Munch, who in today’s world, had he submitted to it, would have been “numbed” by drugs, possibly shock therapy, etc. I agree he probably still would have wanted to paint, but what would it look like? Very different I imagine. Anyway, something we’ll never know, but I can’t help but imagine…..

      • David Leeds says:

        I don’t agree with the word, “numbed.” Psych meds don’t get rid of feelings, just make them more manageable. I think Munch would have been a more functional depressed, neurotic, not a zombie. he would still be looking over the edge of the world, just maybe not trying to jump off it, so to speak.

  6. metscan says:

    Well, thank you David. This was an interesting true story. In many ways, I can now relate to the artist, especially to the part not deserving happiness, so true for me too.
    These pictures do touch me, my emotions, and yes I feel like watching away from the pictures at times. I get the feel of my anxiety arising..
    What about you?

  7. metscan says:

    One thing more.
    I wrote my comment before I read the earlier comments, and what an interesting discussion you had about the medication, and how it might/might not have affected on the work of some artists.
    I´m tempted to think, that surely a modern medication for anxiety would have been a relief for the individual artist, made his life easier. Would it have had an effect on the paintings? I do think that it would have. I only have my just experienced own reaction as proof. These pictures really hit me hard.

  8. David Leeds says:

    Mette, I do have the same reactions as you. They put me in touch with my own anxieties, fears, sadness. And I also agree, anti-anxiety meds, per se, wouldn’t have dulled the rawness of his emotions. I think if he were on a heavy dose of anti-depressants, that may have been a different story. Many people, however, feel they have more access to their emotions, not less. It is so individual. Thanks for your close reading of this material and willingness to share your own sympathetic identification.

  9. Another fabulous post about a great artist. I so enjoyed learning all this about Munch and seeing so many images of his other paintings. Have a great weekend!

  10. Had Munch been capable of transforming himself into one of the two horses in Linda Gregg’s paddock perhaps he would have known peace.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard