Edvard Munch: The Troubled Painter

Art Blog | 13 Dec, 2012

Edvard Munch is the most important modern Norwegian painter, and a major influence on Die Brucke artists. He did not call himself an Expressionist, but his pictures express certain moods in a very dramatic and intense way, especially grief and sadness. One quote synonymous with Munch is this:

“For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.”

Soon after Munch’s birth in 1863, his family moved to Christiania, now called Oslo. He was from a distinguished family. High-ranking churchmen were found on his father’s side whereas his uncle Peter was one of the great historians of Norway. His mother, Laura, came from a well-to-do farming family. Munch was the second of five children. Most of what is known or written about from Munch’s life is from personal journals and letters written to his sister Inger and his Aunt Karen, who looked after the family after his mother died from tuberculosis in 1868 when he was five. She was a warm affectionate substitute mother who encouraged Munch’s artistic abilities as a young boy. Her letters to him show her to have a wise and sympathetic friend through the worst times of his life. Munch’s father had been so badly affected by his wife’s death that he took to an extreme form of religious fervour. Munch wrote of how his father could demonstrate alter-ego traits by being playful one moment before reverting to sudden violent bouts in an unscheduled and seemingly random manner. Munch wrote:

“In my childhood I felt that I was always treated unjustly, without a mother, sick, and with threatened punishment in Hell hanging over my head.”

What this emotional quote portrays is that he was deeply affected by his mother’s physical illness coupled with the aftermath of the mental distress suffered by his father, which provoked irrational behaviour brought on by his father.

In amongst this angst and mental torture there were however happier moments in the artist’s life. At times Munch would attend hospital with his father and learn to draw the patients in bed from which he learned how to compose small groups of figures.

Sickness was to become a theme which frequented the artist’s work. Not only had he to cope with his own bouts of ill-health, suffering from asthmatic bronchitis and several severe attacks of rheumatic fever, which badly interrupted his schooling, but in 1879, when he was fourteen, his older sister Sophie died of the same disease as their mother. Tuberculosis was sadly a slow painful condition. As a young, impressionable and sensitive boy it must have greatly affected Munch to watch while another loved one was taken by illness. Eight years later Munch began to paint the first of six versions of that scene, called The Sick Child. This picture seems quite conventional to us today but it caused an outrage when it was first exhibited at the Oslo Autumn Exhibition in 1886 because it was totally unlike anything that had come before it.

Aged seventeen, Edvard Munch began to study art formally when his father, having given up hope of him becoming an engineer, allowed him to enter the Oslo State School of Art and Handcraft. The following year of 1881 he produced his first significant painting, The Hospital Ward, and then followed several portraits and family studies. It would be the next twenty years where he travelled extensively in France, Italy and Germany. In Paris in 1885 he came under the influence of the Impressionists and from 1890 it was the first the Nabis and then the Post-Impressionists, especially van Gogh and Gauguin, who claimed his attention.

From the Frieze of Life series of paintings

From the Frieze of Life series of paintings

All the time the emotional intensity of Munch’s own art work anticipated that of the Expressionists. During the 1890s he began working on a large series of paintings he called The Frieze of Life (‘a poem of life, love and death’). In 1892 he took 55 pictures to Berlin for an exhibition. They included some of the major Frieze of Life paintings and The Sick Child. Through uncompromising personal subject-matter and public uproar and upheaval the exhibition was forced to close after just one week.  It was not just the public who were angry with Munch’s art works but also the opinions of the art establishment by which they quoted:

“…so sloppily daubed that at times it is difficult to identify them as human figures…they are an insult to art.”

But to every cloud there is a silver lining and in Munch’s case this lining was called the Berlin Secession. This was a group of Berlin artists who were so outraged by the treatment of the Norwegian painter that they formed an alliance to counteract the conflicting views of cast by the art establishment. Munch remained in Berlin where he found many important friends and gradually gained general support for his art works. In 1902 he exhibited 22 of his Frieze paintings, many of which he also produced woodcuts and etchings, two works included in this were The Kiss and The Scream. These made a great impact, as the emotion entangled in these paintings could be seen in the erratic and organic brush marks as well as the subject matter itself.

The Scream, Edvard Munch

The Scream, Edvard Munch

Munch never married and always struggled with female relationships. In 1908, after the painful end of a love affair, combined with relentless overworking and what some would call an alcohol dependency, he suffered a mental breakdown while travelling back home to Norway. He spent eight months in hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. Munch quoted:

“I would not cast off my illness for there is much in my art that I owe to it.”

For some time after this his pictures became more extroverted with his colours seemingly brighter in appearance. In 1914, back in Norway, he was commissioned to paint a series of large mrals for the University Hall of Oslo, depicting the forces of nature, science and history. He completed these in 1916. Later, as he struggles with illness and self-doubt, the art work of Edvard munch became once more anguished, torturous and embodied with emotion. After his breakdown he never left Norway. In 1916 he settled in Ekely, Oslo, and lived a solitary life free from relationships, external influences and stranded with his own thoughts. His 70th birthday in the year of 1933 was internationally recognised, but his works were considered degenerate by the Nazis and removed from the German museums. Munch died peacefully of pneumonia at the age of 80 in 1944, two years after his first exhibition took place in the USA.

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