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How Edvard Munch turned his personal fears into universal symbols

In a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery the artist’s unsettling work speaks to the pain of the human condition.

By Michael Prodger

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and his slightly older peer Vincent van Gogh are commonly characterised as the twin exemplars of turn-of-the-century psychological painting. In a neat south-north division, Van Gogh expressed his turbulent inner life through the interiors and landscapes of Provence while Munch did the same through the bourgeois homes and fjord shores of Norway. Both men were near exact contemporaries of Sigmund Freud and, helpfully for biographers and interpreters of their paintings, they also left written indications of their mental states.

This, nevertheless, is a reductive reading. Projecting their lives and work as symbolic of universal unease with the human condition subordinates the origins of their art. In Munch’s case this involved a fervid period of stylistic experimentation before he settled on a method that he called “soul painting”.

Munch indeed had an overburdened soul to express. He famously said of the travails of his childhood that “disease, insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle”, and they kept him company for the next 45 years of his life too. It meant that painting was for him an “attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself”. The ways in which he sought this explanation are laid out in the superb exhibition of his work at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

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During its recent three-year refurbishment programme, the Courtauld lent some of its Cézannes to the Kode Art Museums in Bergen in Norway, and they have reciprocated with a loan of pictures by Munch from the collection founded by the painter’s most important patron, the milling industrialist Rasmus Meyer. Munch may have been a prolific artist – the new Munch Museum that opened in Oslo last year alone holds 1,200 paintings – but there is a paucity of his work in this country, with the Tate owning just a single picture, so the opportunity to see 18 in one place is exceptional.

Meyer’s paintings span the years 1884 to 1909 and show how Munch rapidly developed as an artist as he absorbed and experimented with a series of idioms – realism, impressionism, post-impressionism, and symbolism – before finding his own autograph manner. There are echoes throughout of Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and even in his large canvas Women in Three Stages (1894) of Sandro Botticelli. But Munch’s progression, needless to say, was not seamless and his pictures brought down the ire of conservative critics who objected to both their subject matter and lack of conventional finish.

Munch, at his father’s urging, initially trained as an engineer, but bouts of illness interrupted his teaching and he decided to become an artist instead. By the time he entered the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania (now Oslo) he was already filled with a slew of difficult emotions. His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was five; his favourite sister Sophie died of the same disease nine years later. Munch’s father, a military doctor, was afflicted with a morbid religiosity and there was a strain of mental illness in the family that re-emerged in another sister, Laura, and that the painter feared was lurking within himself: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies,” he wrote, “the heritage of consumption and insanity.”

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The anxiety this induced would later be reflected in bouts of brawling, drug taking and heavy drinking which, in 1908, culminated in a nervous breakdown. He had more than enough self-knowledge, however, to realise that this permanent sense of apprehension was also the source of his paintings: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

One of the paintings in the exhibition is a self-portrait of 1909 made in a private “nerve” clinic in Copenhagen run by the psychiatrist Daniel Jacobson, where Munch sought treatment after his breakdown. There his regime comprised rest, healthy eating, fresh air, tobacco-free cigars, the companionship of “poison-free women” – as an antidote to his history of sexual entanglements – and mild electrical stimulus. Munch stayed for eight months and the portrait, composed of stripes of primary colours, with only the face properly worked up, shows something of the emerging stability he found there. Each paint mark is a part of the process through which he put himself back together and the man who stares out has a confident, direct gaze: the fears that haunted and drove him have not fully gone but they are under control.

The painting’s dashes also derive from the influence of the French artists such as Georges Seurat whom he had studied on trips to Paris in 1885 and 1889. Their example found expression in his pointillist Spring Day on Karl Johan Street (1890), a picture of a scene that made him “shiver with pleasure” in which he substituted one of Oslo’s main streets for the Parisian boulevards to make an optimistic sun- and crowd-filled mood painting. The style earned him the nickname “Bizarro” from the critics but – perhaps fearing to be too derivative, and perhaps also wary of the science that underlay pointillist optics and the difficulty of using it to express emotion – he quickly moved on.

In fact he had already discovered the beginnings of the manner he would ultimately adopt. In 1889 he had painted Summer Night: Inger on the Beach, a portrait of his sister by the sea at Åsgårdstrand, the port town on the Oslofjord where he would later buy a holiday home he referred to as the “Happy House”. In the picture there is no horizon, only the sea utterly still behind Inger, and she poses contemplatively in white, her own simplified form mirroring that of the boulders among which she sits. For the first time Munch endows the surroundings with the charged sentiment of the main figure. It is a grave painting, very different from the sweetness inherent in thematically similar pictures by the contemporary Skagen Painters of Denmark, such as Peder Severin Krøyer, whose beach scenes emit douceur de vivre rather than the heft of life’s cares.

There is a hint of prescience to the painting too. At the end of the year Munch’s father died. The pair had often been at odds over Edvard’s art and Christian Munch had destroyed several of his son’s paintings. Nevertheless, he had given him both financial assistance and also a vital psychological bolstering that teetered into severe depression with his death: “I live with the dead,” Munch wrote, “my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father…” before stating chillingly: “Kill yourself and then it’s over. Why live?” The answer was that he needed to support his siblings, and he adopted the financial responsibilities of the pater familias.

By this point, Munch already had the beginnings of a reputation as a coming man and controversialist, and in 1892 this growing renown led to an invitation to exhibit in Berlin. His exhibition at the Architektenhaus lasted just seven days after the director of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts claimed the paintings were degenerate and insisted that the show be closed to the public. Although the painter delighted in the “great commotion” of the “Munch affair”, the real effect of his years in Germany was that it was there that he developed his ideas for The Frieze of Life.

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The Frieze started as an idea for a book illustration and grew into an amorphous project for a series of paintings depicting such topics as love, illness and death – the gateway moments of existence – that was to preoccupy him for the next 20 years. The Scream (1893) was part of the project. The exhibition has several paintings from the scheme, including the profoundly unsettling Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), an image of the same street he had painted so joyously only two years earlier. Here though it is night-time, the colours are now throbbingly sombre purples, dark blues and greens, and Munch himself is down among the crowds that walk towards him as if he were a rock parting the waters in a river, their faces pale, skeletal masks.

Munch recalled (in the third person) once searching the street for a woman who obsessed him and finding himself in a throng: “The people passing him looked so strange and unfamiliar and he thought they were looking at him – staring at him – all these faces – so pale in the evening light.” If his own initial impulse was sexual, he transformed it here into something quite different – an image of urban alienation, a non-specific disquiet, a fretfulness at life itself. Munch said that The Scream emerged when, strolling under a blood-red evening sky, he found himself unable to walk on and “stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. These people, in the midst of their haunted promenade, have heard it too. 

This disturbing ability to transmute the intensity of his own private emotions into images that resonate universally became the defining quality of Munch’s art. In At the Deathbed (1895), his traumatic memories of the death of his sister Sophie show how the blank despair of grief afflicts every loved one of every age. It is a depiction of the psychology of mourning in which the deathbed witnesses pray or clench their fist in impotence at mortality or stand numb, their sallow mask-faces expressionless. The body is no more than a shape on the bed but the red colour with which Munch paints the sickroom flows above the watchers as the soul departs.

In Man and Woman (1898), post-coital tristesse is turned to despair as a naked couple are poleaxed by the distance that has suddenly opened between them after the intimacy of a moment before. Munch had difficulty with relationships – “The struggle between man and woman that is called love” – and here the woman has red hair, his symbol for the femme fatale that he used in several works, a sign of the imbalance he felt when his emotions were stirred.

A year after he painted this work Munch started a relationship with a woman named Tulla Larsen: he painted her with red hair. It foundered because she wanted marriage, while he believed “his sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married”. They stumbled on regardless but at one point a fracas occurred in her bedroom and Munch accidentally shot himself in the hand. It cost him a finger – the bullet and shattered finger can be seen in one of the first medical X-rays ever taken, which would have fascinated Munch, a keen photographer – and he literally cut Larsen out of his life when he sawed in two a double portrait of them he had painted.

What gives Munch’s pictures their charge, however, is not simply the subjects and colours but the energy of his paint. There is rarely calm in his application, rather the picture surfaces are alive with whorls, scrubbings, abstract patterns, and pigment applied as if he couldn’t cover the canvas fast enough. Something of this urgency transmits itself to the viewer and adds immeasurably to the pictures’ immediacy.

Munch once stated that: “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?” What this exceptionally choice exhibition proves is that in painting his own fears and anxieties he painted those of the mass of humankind too. He was much closer to others than he thought.

Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen
The Courtauld Gallery, London WC2
Runs until 4 September

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special