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. Susan Tiner says:

    David, I enjoyed this post and discussion. I have always been moved by Munch’s paintings, had no idea he was suffering but it makes perfect sense, especially given the overly zealous religious life and fondness for Poe.

    The female images trouble me. He depicts them as disturbed, projects the shame, lust, judgement and despair; it makes me feel for the women who were intimate with him.

  2. Susan Tiner says:

    Quickie follow up: Martin and I visited The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, France, 2009, a wonderful collection. I can see why Munch related to TL’s work.

  3. Thomas says:

    I am just now beginning to investigate the talent, and life of Edvard Munch. His genius and proliferation of art exceeds the pain that he experienced in his lifetime. Loss always changes us to some extent and every piece of work that Edvard did was a master’s piece. In a way, it was as therapeudic as any drug for any malady. My delimma is that I believe that I own a Munch painting that may not have ever been seen before. The signs are right there, the main question is, was it painted before or after his breakdown? Munch painted or included very few churches in his works, none of the trees were ever the same, and none of his signatures were identical…this presents many problems, but I still feel that the work is his.

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