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Munch's belief that art should be of people who breathe, who feel emotions, who suffer and love' resulted in unprecedented images of the innermost feelings and mental anguish of modern man.
When Munch died, there was a copy of Dostoevsky's book The Devils by his bedside. It seems a fitting choice for a man who created his own nightmare visions and who provided the earliest pictorial definitions of paranoia and angst. Munch himself did little to dispel this image, claiming that art was his life's blood, costing him pain and suffering.
Initially, his personal style was built up from his own subjective view of the world around him. After his early naturalist phase, Munch's first important paintings including The Sick Child were described as 'impressionistic' by the critics, at a time when the word was used as a term of abuse. But rather than studying the variations of light caused by the weather or the time of day, Munch chose to concentrate on the momentary visual distortions that can occur as the eye adjusts to different conditions in effect, tricks of the light. As a result, most early commentators singled out Munch's apparently cavalier use of colour for their criticisms.
From this position, it was a short step to progress from painting visual impressions to depicting the effect that these impressions had on the emotions. The Scream is the most famous example of this. Munch was inspired by a dramatic sunset which he had witnessed while walking beside a fjord. However, by suppressing his own features and by transforming the waters and the sky into threatening shock waves of vibrant colour, he managed to convey the feelings of terror that he had experienced on that occasion. Munch defended his approach by stressing that 'Nature is the means, not the end. If one can attain something by changing nature, one must do it.
This directness was reflected in Munch's method of working. When, for example, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the industrialist, Herbert Esche, Munch did nothing for the first fortnight except stay with the family until he felt he knew his subject. Then he set to work very rapidly, testing his colours on his client's expensive wallpaper and relying on a simple charcoal sketch on the canvas as his sole guide for the composition.
During his Symbolist phase (c.1889-1900), Munch turned to the depiction of ideas rather than emotions, using the mystical and sexual images that were fashionable as the basis for his Frieze of Life. In fact, the very notion of a frieze, with its attempt to simulate the resonant quality of music, was a thoroughly Symbolist concept.
For the several components of his Frieze, Munch selected a few key images and reworked them constantly, varying the colour schemes, the poses of the figures or even just the titles. 'Art is crystallization' he asserted, convinced that his revisions would eventually lead to the most powerfully emotive version of any given theme.
In this regard, Munch's interest in the graphic arts proved crucial. Originally, he had taken up etching, in 1894, as a means of earning extra income. However, as the possibilities of the medium became apparent to him, he grew more inventive and, at one stage, even acquired the habit of carrying a copper plate around in his pocket to use like a sketch book.
Munch's work in Paris, in 1896, with Auguste Clot the printer who had aided Toulouse Lautrec and Bonnard proved a revelation. He learnt the techniques of making lithographs and colour woodcuts and, to the latter in particular, he brought exciting innovations. By sawing the woodblock into smaller sections and colouring these individually, he was able to produce multicoloured woodcuts easily, without going through the tedious process of making separate printings for each colour.
Prints were invaluable to Munch because the plates or blocks could easily be reworked or printed in different colours, thereby greatly increasing the scope for experiment. There was also a degree of feedback, from the prints to his canvases: compositions were often refined in lithographs or woodcuts and then translated back into paint, producing a simplified and more powerful image. In his later years, Munch grew increasingly reluctant to part with his paintings and, where he was obliged to sell, frequently made replicas for himself.
In his heart, he still nurtured hopes of displaying his works together, confident that the full force of his very personal style could only be appreciated if viewed en masse.
The availability of his art to a wide public was of prime importance to Munch and, in a sense, this single desire governed his interest in friezes, graphic work and large murals. He despised the notion of a bourgeois art, where the academies became factories for producing paintings which vanished into the houses of the wealthy forever.
After Munch's return to Norway in 1908 his paintings lost their emotional intensity, and he turned to his native landscape, nature and working people for the subjects of his work. These themes were central to his large-scale public projects such as the University murals and the frieze at the Freia chocolate factory. But even in his apparently realistic works, traces of his old obsessions are still discernible. The bowed head of the model in his Nude by the Wicker Chair carries faint echoes of the shy apprehension in Puberty, while the workmen in Workers Returning Home have the same remorseless formality as the faceless figures in Anxiety.
Munch was, in every sense, an isolated figure. He had no pupils and he declined invitations to join avant-garde groups like Die Brucke. Even to his bohemian friends in Christiania and Berlin, he had remained something of an outsider. However, his haunting images linking the themes of sickness, death and raw, sexual power neatly encapsulated the mystical spirit of the Symbolists, while the directness of his style, with its daringly inventive distortions, paved the way for Expressionism.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish