“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” wrote Edvard Munch, from a Copenhagen clinic, where he was being treated for alcohol-induced hallucinations. “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder… My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” (251)
Never had an artist confessed so candidly that he could only be productive when he was truly miserable. Never had a painter put forward such a clear statement of the links between anxiety and creativity.
2013 is the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth and the Norwegians are honouring their greatest artist with a two part retrospective. The National Gallery of Art in Oslo takes the story up to 1904, while the Munch Museum continues on to 1944, the year of Munch’s death. It is the most comprehensive retrospective ever devoted to Munch, and undoubtedly one of the outstanding exhibitions to be held anywhere this year.
Munch 150 is a show that it is worth getting on a plane to go and see – even to Norway! Munch is a seminal figure in the development of modern art, whose career slams the door on the 19th century and opens up a new dimension for artists to explore.
Although he began as a realist, Munch soon became identified with the Symbolist movement. By 1905 he was seen as a pioneering Expressionist, an inspirational figure for the young German artists of the group known as Die Brücke (The Bridge). Yet no matter how he is perceived, Munch remains the most individualistic of artists. His work was drawn from his own tortured mind, from the melancholy and dramatic events of his life.
The artist’s description of his childhood sets the scene for everything that follows: “Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle.”
While still a child, Munch watched his mother and his elder sister, Sophie, die of tuberculosis. At the age of 13 he caught the disease himself and was lucky to survive. His second sister, Laura, went mad while still in her teens; his brother Andreas would qualify as a doctor, but die of pneumonia while still a young man. His other sister, Inger, had her life blighted by having to care for the family.
Munch’s elderly father, Christian, was morbidly religious and saw all the family’s privations as a judgement from God. He worked as a doctor among the poor, earning hardly anything, while constantly relocating to progressively poorer lodgings. To entertain his children he would read to them from the Bible, or from the works of Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe. Small wonder Edvard became so nervy.
In Munch’s formative years his fear of life almost exceeded his fear of death. He determined at an early age that he would not marry or have children, to avoid passing on tainted blood to a new generation. Throughout his life he would refer to his paintings as his ‘children’. He hated selling them, and would often paint a new version of a picture as soon as he relinquished the original. At times he would ask purchasers if he could have works back on loan.
Upon embarking on his studies at art school, Munch fell in with the self-styled Bohemians of Kristiania, as Oslo was known until 1925. His chief companion was Hans Jaeger, anarchist and atheist, a terminally impotent proponent of free love, who outlined his philosophy this this way: “I shall not rest until I have corrupted my entire generation, or driven them to suicide.”
Jaeger was the first of many Mephistophelean figures who would inspire and exasperate Munch. At the same time the young artist began an affair with an older married woman, Millie Thaulow, which would drive him to despair and inspire some of his most memorable paintings.
The ‘fiends’ of Kristiania’s Bohemia, as he came to describe them, would haunt Munch for most of his life. Years later, in Berlin, he became friends with the deranged Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, and the musician, writer and Satanist, Staczu Pzyzbyszewski. It was another period of poverty and heavy drinking, revolving around a love triangle with a Norwegian woman, Dagny Juel, who would eventually marry Pzyzbyszewski.
Yet the crisis in Munch’s life that would drive him closest to madness was his Fatal Attraction-style pursuit by Tulla Larsen, a wealthy heiress who wanted him for a husband, even as she enjoyed promiscuous relations with his enemies. Tulla appears in many of Munch’s best-known paintings, including The Dance of Life (1899), in which she appears on both sides of the artist as he dances with his first mistress. He said that kissing her was like kissing a corpse, and would go on to paint her as a naked Charlotte Corday, standing over the body of a dead Marat who bore his own features.
Munch’s taste for extreme company reflected his taste in art. In his youth he developed a hatred of the “brown sauce” in which 19th century artists enveloped their pictures. In later life he would be no less contemptuous of the “Christmas cards” painted by the young Scandinavian disciples of Matisse. Art had to come from the soul if it were to have any power or meaning.
He announced his departure from convention at the age of 23, with The Sick Child (1886), a painting that occupied him for a year. This raw, confronting picture based on the death of his sister, Sophie, would scandalise audiences and commentators. The Sick Child was widely viewed as the work of a madman – an accusation that would be repeated throughout Munch’s career.
Munch completed the first version of The Scream (1893) when he was only 30, after a visit to his sister, Laura. In the same year he showed a group of paintings in Berlin that would form the basis of The Frieze of Life, a suite of iconic images dealing with love, anxiety and death. By 1902 it would include The Kiss – an image of ecstatic union between man and woman; Madonna – a naked woman sanctified at the moment of sexual surrender; Vampire – in which a woman with long hair bends her head over the back of a man’s neck; Jealousy – featuring the green-tinged face of Pzyzbyszewski; and Evening on Karl Johan, with its nightmare vision of the staring faces of the Kristiania bourgeoisie, as they parade up and down the city’s most fashionable street. The series also included The Scream, The Dance of Life, The Sick Child, and other works recognised as Munch’s masterpieces.
If Munch had died at the age of 40, he would be scarcely less famous today. By 1902 all of his most celebrated pictures had been painted, but he would return to the same themes and motifs with manic persistence, both in the form of paintings and prints.
The exhibition at the National Museum of Art ends as Munch is starting to experience tremendous success with German collectors. He has a stream of portrait commissions, and is earning a lot of money. Soon his major problems would not come from poverty and hunger, they would be generated by his ongoing battle with a rapacious Norwegian tax system.
The second part of the show, at the Munch Museum, begins with contradictory works that reveal the growing fissures in Munch’s psyche. We find him at the German resort town of Warnemünde, painting nude male bathers, as symbols of vitalism – the ‘healthy mind, healthy body’ craze that had infected European thought. At the same time he was working on a series of small, crude pictures set in a German brothel, reprising the themes of The Frieze of Life in a manner that displayed symptoms of paranoia and self-loathing.
It was only after eight months in Dr. Daniel Jacobsen’s clinic that Munch began to straighten himself out, returning to live in Norway as a wealthy recluse. To his great surprise the Norwegians bestowed an honour on him – the Cross of St. Olav – but this did not mean he would be freed from insults and persecution.
The final decades of Munch’s life were spent in isolation from the world, but his productivity never flagged. His strength of will and personality are just as visible in the last works as they are in the first. He produced lyrical landscapes of great beauty in his views of a starry night. In a succession of works on theme of the ageing artist and young model the sexual tension is palpable. His final masterpiece is Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), where he stands at attention between a clock with no hands, on which time has run out, and the bed that will be his vehicle to oblivion.
An early commentator once wrote that every one of Munch’s paintings was like the shedding of a skin. By the end of this very moving show, we see an artist finally ready to relinquish those anxieties upon which he fed so productively during a long life conducted in the shadow of madness and death.
Munch 150, National Gallery of Art & Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway, June 2 – October 13, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 22, 2013