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The Great Artist Edvard Munch

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 10:46 PM
Edvard Munch


Edvard Munch was Norway's greatest painter and graphic artist, a major exponent of Symbolism and a forerunner of the Expressionists. The tragic loss of his mother and sister in his childhood brought a morbid tone to much of his work. Initially, his friendship with the bohemian circle in the Norwegian capital steered him towards Impressionism, but trips to Paris from 1889 onwards put him in touch with the Symbolists.

In 1892, Munch's name was made when his exhibition in Berlin was closed down, bringing him instant notoriety. Settling in Germany, he embarked on his Frieze of Life, a compilation of intensely personal images of love and death. Overwork, alcohol and emotional strain led Munch to a nervous breakdown in 1908. After this, he returned to live in seclusion in Norway, devoting his last years to public murals and studies of workers.



 A Mind in Torment 

Traumatic childhood experiences created in Munch a chronic anxiety and restlessness, leading ultimately to a nervous breakdown. After this, he returned to his native Norway to recuperate and settle.

Edvard Munch was born on 12 December 1863, in Loten, a small farming community in southern Norway. His father, Christian, came from a professional background of churchmen and soldiers and worked as a military physician. Christian's brother, Peter Andreas Munch, was a celebrated historian.

Edvard was the second son of five children. A year after his birth, the family moved to the capital, Christiania (re-named Oslo in 1927), where tragedy was to enter their lives. In 1868, Munch's mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 33 and, in 1877, his favourite sister Sophie also perished from the same disease. These early misfortunes scarred the boy deeply, and throughout his long career, images of the sick room and the deathbed recur constantly in his work.
Edvard is here shown (standing, right) with his mother, brother and sisters. His happy childhood was irreparably disrupted by the premature deaths of his mother and favourite sister, Sophie.  
Munch's home life was claustrophobic and oppressive. A sickly child himself, he was confined within the family flat for considerable periods of his youth, while his father's religious fervour, which had intensified after the death of his wife, was bringing him to the brink of insanity for hours at a tune, he would pace up and down his room in prayer. Small wonder that Munch later wrote of his childhood, 'Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over 6 my cradle and accompanied me all my life.

Fortunately, his aunt Karen had taken over the running of the family and was to prove a stabilizing influence. As an amateur painter, she encouraged the Munch children to draw. Accordingly, Edvard made copies of the illustrations in Grimm's fairy tales and, in the early 1880s, was trying to sell his work to magazines.

Key Dates

1863 born in Loten, southern Norway

1868 mother dies

1877 sister dies

1881-3 attends State School of Art and Crafts

1885/6 paints The Sick Child  

1889-91 scholarship to study in Paris

1892 Berlin exhibition closed

1906 designs theatre sets for lbsen's Ghosts

1908 suffers a nervous breakdown

1909 settles in Norway

1916 his murals installed at Christiania (Oslo) University

1937 his paintings confiscated by the Nazis

1944 dies at Ekely

Christiania modern Oslo was a small provincial town when the Munch family moved there in 1864. Its deep-seated philistinism was slow to change, and explains the later vilification of Munch. By this time, he had already decided on art as a career. His studies in engineering at the Technical College had lasted less than a year and, in 1881, he entered the State School of Art and Crafts. His initial supervisor there was Julius Middelthun, but the dominant influence on his early development was the naturalist painter, Christian Krohg. In 1882, along with six other artists, Munch rented a studio where Krohg provided informal instruction.

Through Krohg, Munch also came into contact with the bohemian circle of writers and painters who were in the forefront of artistic rebellion in Norway. Led by Krohg and the novelist Hans Jaeger, the group denounced bourgeois morality and pressed for radical, sexual and artistic freedom. In literature, they worshipped Zola and, in painting, they advocated an unstinting brand of realism. One commentator summed them up as 'that half-debauched, poverty-stricken, Christiania gypsy camp'.

Norway, however, was too provincial a platform for Munch's talents. In 1883, he attended the open-air academy run by Gauguin's brother-in-law, Frits Thaulow, and through him gained a travel grant to Paris two years later. The visit lasted only three weeks, but gave him the opportunity to see most of the latest works by Monet and the Impressionists.

Munch's teacher in Paris was the academic Leon Bonnat. Munch found his approach quite alien, and instead turned for inspiration to the new Symbolist movement.
Some Parisian influences can be detected in Munch's first masterpiece, The Sick Child, which was completed in 1886. However, the scraping away of the features and the slightly simplified forms created a more powerful emotional impact than most Impressionist paintings, and are reminiscent of Post-impressionist masters like Vuillard and Ensor.


Four years later, Munch was able to study French art at greater leisure. After the success of his first one-man show, the Norwegian government awarded him a State Scholarship on condition that he found an acceptable teacher. Accordingly, on his arrival in Paris, he enrolled in the life classes of Leon Bonnat.

Munch worked diligently at these classes, but was soon alienated by his master's conventional academic approach. Bonnat, in turn, was impressed with his pupil's draughtsmanship, but objected to his highly subjective use of colour. The two men parted company after a disagreement over the precise tones of a wall in the studio.
Despite this setback, Munch's three-year stay in Paris was a crucial period. The death of his father in 1889 released him from lingering family ties while, on a more positive note, he benefited enormously from the feverish activity in the art world. He was particularly influenced by the growing Symbolist movement, which inspired his symbolic use of colour, his simplification of form, and even his subject matter of the femme fatale.

The ideas of the Symbolist poets, like Mallarme, who sought to reveal the workings of the inner mind, were of vital importance to Munch.Meanwhile, a dramatic incident brought Munch international attention. In 1892, the Verein Berliner Kunstler (Union of Berlin Artists) invited him to join their exhibition. His paintings caused uproar and, after a week, the committee ordered him to remove his 'daubs'. But some of the Verein's members objected and, headed by Max Liebermann, left to form the Berlin Secession.

Munch was delighted by the furore and swiftly made arrangements to exhibit the works in Dusseldorf and Cologne. An extensive tour of German and Scandinavian cities followed and, through these shows, Munch earned as much from his percentage of the entrance fees as he did from the sales of his paintings. Encouraged by this sudden notoriety, Munch settled in Berlin and soon became attached to a new artistic coterie, which met at Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (the Black Piglet). Among its more vocal members were the playwright August Strindberg, and the Polish novelist Stanislaw Przybyszewski. 
Munch spent his summers relaxing at the house he rented in Asgardstrand. The light and landscape there had a lasting effect on his art.
Amid the highly charged atmosphere of the group's meetings, Munch formulated plans for his Frieze of Life. Through this ambitious scheme, he intended to assemble a number of paintings on linked themes and display them together, in the hope that the ensemble would create a symphonic effect. The binding theme was to be 'the poetry of life, love and death', seen through the distorting mirror of Munch's personal experiences, and the series included many of his greatest paintings. The Scream, The Dance of Life, Madonna (back cover), The Vampire and Jealousy were among the works selected. 


Munch called his paintings 'his children' and littered his studio at Ekely with them. However, despite his fatherly proclamation, many were left in the open air regardless of the weather, while others were strewn across his studio floor. At the core of the Frieze was Munch's view of female sexual power. He depicted this in three stages as awakening innocence, voracious sexuality and as an image of death. In many cases, these three facets were combined in a single picture. The lithograph of Madonna (back cover), for example, suggested innocence through its title and the sketchy halo, and yet at the same time Munch chose to show the woman at the point of orgasm and described her expression as a 'corpse's smile'. Meanwhile, in the border, sperm wriggled like worms away from a sickly embryo.

Munch's own relations with women reflected these troubled images. Although tall and good looking, he was wary of the opposite sex: the loss of his mother and sister may have made him afraid of relationships with women he often portrayed love and death together. The family history of tuberculosis and mental illness convinced him it was unwise to marry, but he also feared marriage would interfere with his work. His first affair, with the headstrong wife of a medical officer, haunted him for years, while, in Berlin, he was attracted by Przybyszewski's wife, Dagny, and portrayed her as a temptress in Jealousy. His final, disastrous liaison with Tulla Larsen ended with her shooting off the joint of one of his fingers. 

In 1926 Munch wrote: '... my ideas developed under the influence of the bohemians or rather of Hans Jaeger'. Highly intellectual and a committed anarchist, Jaeger had shocked the Norwegian bourgeoisie with his 'pornographic' book, From the Christiania Bohemians, for which he was sentenced to two months' imprisonment. He spent the evening before he was due to go to prison with Munch, who later painted this portrait of him.  
Although based in Germany, Munch travelled frequently, living in a succession of boarding houses. He was not a healthy man and his nomadic lifestyle must have mentally and physically exhausted him. Money was also a problem and, on one occasion, a patron rescued Munch after he had been evicted from his room and was forced to wander the streets of Berlin for three days without food.

Nevertheless, these were productive years. On a visit to Paris Munch met Paul Gauguin and his followers and, at Bing's Art Nouveau gallery, he saw the influential exhibition of Japanese woodcuts. Also in Paris, he developed his interest in new printing techniques, under the supervision of the renowned graphic artist, Auguste Clot.


Munch's major commissions at the turn of the century came from his friend, Dr Linde. In addition to a superb portrait of the doctor's four sons, the artist completed a folio of prints for him and drew up plans for a frieze to decorate his nursery. The latter was never executed; however, as Linde eventually decided that Munch's work might not be suitable for his children's room.

In 1906-7, he gained several other important commissions from Max Reinhardt, to provide a frieze for his new Kammerspiele theatre and design sets for lbsen's Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. While he was working on these pictures, Munch lived in the theatre, painting by day and drinking by night. He kept himself remote from other people, causing a colleague to admit that 'He remained both a stranger and a puzzle to us'.

Tuna Larsen was infatuated with Munch and they did actually discuss marriage. This was not to be, however, and although portrayed here in placid enough mood, Munch also made Tulla the model for Hate and The Murderess. The shooting incident with Tulla Larsen, excessive drinking and exhaustion began to take their toll, and Munch became obsessed with feelings of persecution which were not helped by the abusive criticism of his work by his countrymen. Finally, in 1908, after a three-day drinking spree, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Daniel Jacobson's clinic in Copenhagen. There, he recuperated for eight months, receiving various forms of therapy.

Munch had always been aware of the danger inherent in allowing his creativity to feed off his neuroses, but chose to ignore it. 'I would not cast off my illness' he had written 'for there is much in my art that I owe to it.' Now, however, he dedicated himself to recovery. In doing so, he made a conscious decision to abandon the obsessive, neurotic imagery of the past. Henceforward, he would depict the things he saw around him, rather than his emotions.

In addition, Munch resolved to put an end to his wandering.. Hitherto, he had spent only his summers in Norway, at Asgardstrand, but now he returned there permanently, settling at first in the coastal town of Kragero.

Ironically, the ending of Munch's most creative period coincided with greater official recognition. In 1908, he was made a Knight of the Order of St Olav and, in 1911, he won the prestigious competition for decorating the University Assembly Hall. Here, he installed a new Frieze of Life, although this time he chose to portray universal forces The Sun, History, Alma Mater rather than the inner workings of the soul.

After his breakdown, Munch resolved to abandon the emotional images of his past and dedicate himself to mental recovery. He moved to Norway and produced much calmer works but he was still far from calm himself. He was an insomniac rind would often book an overnight couchette to Oslo as he found sleeping WI trains easier. FINAL PROJECTS 

Munch aimed to produce further public murals. In particular, he cherished the idea of designing a frieze on the theme of working men and industry. Preliminary sketches were displayed in the dining room of the Freia Chocolate Factory in 1922 but, sadly, the project never materialized. Munch also offered his services for the decoration of the new City Hall in Oslo, but the building work was delayed until 1933, by which time the artist had an eye complaint and could no longer paint.

Munch's last years were spent in isolation at his estate in Ekely. Here, he lived a Spartan life, surrounded by the paintings which he called his 'children'. Despite this term of affection, he treated them badly, littering his prints on the floor and hanging his paintings out on the apple trees to dry. With the rise of the Nazis, Munch's art was branded as degenerate and his pictures sold off from German museums. Then, in December 1943, he contracted a fatal dose of bronchitis after a bomb blew out the windows of his house. He died on 23 January 1944. In his will, he generously bequeathed his entire collection of prints and paintings some 20,000 in all to the city of Oslo.

Writer – Marshall Cavendish 


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