Edvard Munch — Seeing Only The Essential
Edvard Munch lived to be 80 (1863–1944), more than enough time to establish himself as a great and influential artist. He bridged the major movements of 19th-century Symbolism and 20th-century Expressionism.
In an exhibition catalog for this great Norwegian artist, the author Karl Ove Knausgård wonders what would have happened had Munch “for one reason or another, stopped painting when he was 22.” It isn’t an entirely frivolous premise.
We’re accustomed to the premature flameout of young rebels in painting; Caravaggio, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat support the mythology of the revolutionary who died too young. Munch, who had precocious gifts and provoked controversy from nearly the start of his career, was primed to follow that script.
He was susceptible to thoughts of suicide in his youth. And he once wrote in his diary, “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
These anxieties informed and suffused Munch’s work throughout his early years — as well as his continual return to particular themes, reworking and repainting favorite motifs until old age. They were also the subject of an exhibition “Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” on display at the Met Breuer in New York City.
A Frightful Heritage
The circumstances of Edvard Munch’s early life were grim. Painting was the vehicle by which he tried to make sense of things. He was born in Løten, Norway, in 1863, and grew up in Kristiania (now Oslo).
Munch’s youth was marked by tragedy. Both his mother and favorite sister died of tuberculosis, and another sister was diagnosed with mental illness. He was often sick, subject to bouts of fever and bronchitis. “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies,” Munch later wrote, “the heritage of consumption and insanity.”
As a teenager, Munch proved to be an accomplished landscape painter. He was largely self-taught. But he did receive instruction and support from some of Norway’s most prominent artists, including Frits Thaulow and Christian Krohg. Munch’s earliest figurative works are naturalistic, painted with dense and rough impasto in a manner that appears sympathetic to Krohg’s.
One of Munch’s earliest advocates, Krohg once remarked, “He paints, or rather regards, things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason, Munch’s pictures are as a rule ‘not complete,’ as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. Oh, yes, they are complete. His complete handiwork.”
Munch experimented with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles. He moved to Paris where he became an unenthusiastic pupil of Léon Bonnat. From there he traveled to Berlin, befriending artists and intellectuals.
He exhibited often, his work received in a manner we’d now refer to as “polarized.” When Munch exhibited The Sick Child in 1886, a painting he considered a breakthrough (the eponymous canvas featured at the Met exhibition, below, is a later copy), critical reaction was hostile.
The scene, which recollects his sister’s death, is tender and morbid in feeling. But what shocked the public was its lack of traditional finish. He called it his first “soul painting,” a rejection of then-current styles in favor of a completely personal approach.
His teacher, Krohg, had looked outward, painting figures in the context of social realism. Munch looked inward so that all his subjects, be they figure or landscape, reflected a psychological state.
The Rise to Fame
In 1892 Munch showed 55 paintings at the Society of Artists in Berlin. The reaction was again violent. The exhibition closed early, and the society split eventually leading to the Berlin Secession (an association of artists, formed in 1898 under the leadership of Max Lieberman; secessionists upheld Modernist trends in opposition to the traditionalists at the state-run Association of Berlin Artists).
Munch was famous. That year, he painted Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair, an initial foray into the idea that would crystallize the following year with his most famous image, The Scream.
The heavily worked realism of his earlier paintings had, by this time, given way to a fluid application of pigment that suggests a dreamlike environment. And although the red sky was based on an evening Munch had seen, it seems more evocative of an emotional state than descriptive of atmospheric effects.
The Frieze of Life
During this period in the early 1890s, Munch began work on a series of paintings depicting themes of love, anxiety and death, titled Frieze of Life (The Scream was initially intended to belong to this group). Over the next few years, he produced 22 canvases for the series — many of which are among his most important paintings.
The culminating work was The Dance of Life, a scene that unfolds on a summer night by the seaside, a rising moon casting its monolithic reflection on the water. The foreground tableau is dominated by a couple dancing at the center. The woman’s red dress is wrapped around her partner’s legs. At left, a smiling young woman strides forward to pluck a flower. And at right, an older woman withdraws disconsolately.
Romance, lust and isolation are acted out in a rhythmic design that suggests the influence of Art Nouveau. Though the subject has universal implications, Munch noted in his diary that the characters referred to his own, often troubled, romantic experiences.
Norway and Nocturnes
For Munch, the landscape of his native Norway was imbued with emotive force, even in the absence of human presence. It also offered themes, conveyed in paintings such as The Scream and The Dance of Life, which interested the artist so much he revisited them over the course of his life.
Among his numerous nocturnes, Munch painted his first work titled Starry Night in 1893. And he returned to the subject 30 years later. The scene in the initial work is one of solitude; illuminated only by starlight, it’s stripped down to a few essential and rather ominous shapes.
Starry Night of 1922–24, with its undulating ground plane and pulsating stars, is a far livelier and more colorful scene. Snow-covered land shapes alternate between deep shadow and artificial light created by the buildings of Oslo. These qualities exemplify the direction of Munch’s later work: still forceful in design and execution but looser, more colorful and less inclined to the tragic themes of his youth.
Whether painting the dramas of human life or the landscape around Oslo, Munch’s work was always unreservedly self-revealing. Inasmuch as art is both a way of communicating with others and a means of self-awareness, it stands to reason self-portraiture would play a significant role in Munch’s oeuvre.
In the exhibition at the Met, nearly a third of the paintings were literal self-portraits (as opposed to the many works for which the artist used surrogates — as when an actor slips into a character — to express his thoughts). The earliest on display dates from 1886, with the young Munch casting a sidelong glance through a screen of scraped pigment.
The next self-portrait titled Self Portrait With Cigarette — if one discounts The Scream as a symbolic self-representation — dates from 1895 and depicts the artist illuminated from below, wearing a suit and brandishing a lit cigarette. The style is unusually naturalistic but no less haunting than the Symbolist vernacular he’d invented.
Munch stands in a void of darkness and regards himself in the mirror with existential apprehension. The paint is applied in broad, thin washes of blue, black and violet across the expanse of the canvas, except for the head and hands, which are drawn with exquisite care.
Munch’s self-portraits trace the arc of his progress as an artist as they chart his physical and emotional development. In The Night Wanderer, painted when he was 60, Munch is no less fraught than in the youthful portraits. But, the self-dramatization has ratcheted down, and the interior space is comprehensible.
Twenty years earlier he’d painted himself bare-chested against a red wall and titled the work Self-Portrait in Hell. Now he’s wearing a coat and hunched forward with age.
In later self-portraits, as if acclimated to earthly surroundings, Munch increasingly occupies the prosaic spaces of his home. One of his last paintings, made when he was 80, is Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed — the work from which the Met’s exhibition takes its name.
Munch stands in the open doorway to his bedroom, flanked by the furniture of the title. Small in the context of his home, he faces us without gesture. He’s long past posturing.
The artist had reached the conclusion of a productive life. International recognition was his, yet he chose to spend his later years alone, painting.
Expression of the Intensity of Loss
Had Edvard Munch painted no more after his first wholly personal work, he’d be remembered as an intriguing curiosity. What he continued to produce throughout his 20s and 30s was astonishing for its raw honesty. Had any artist before him unpacked the tragedy of personal loss for open public appraisal, let alone done so with such visual intelligence?
Munch parted ways with Symbolism and Art Nouveau in that his gifts of design and color were used not at the service of distant abstract ideas or to tell stories about other people, but to comprehend and communicate the intensity of loss in his own life. He plucked a chord that was incipient to Northern European painting at least as far back as Dürer. And he played it at high volume.
As he aged, Munch’s tone mellowed. But his volume — the imperative he felt to express thoughts in painting that had hitherto been whispered — was unabated.