Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Edvard Munch – part 1 - Introduction

1889c Edvard Munch, National Library of Norway, Oslo
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is regarded as a pioneer in the Expressionist movement in modern painting. At an early stage Munch was recognized in Germany and central Europe as one of the creators of a new epoch. Munch’s art from the 1890s is the most well known, but his later work is steadily attracting greater attention.

Biography adapted from “Edvard Munch, Father of Expressionism” by Dr. Frank Høifødt, with acknowledgements. I have inserted examples of Munch’s works at key places to illustrate Dr. Høifødt’s biographical content:

Edvard Munch grew in Oslo, the capital of Norway. His father was a deeply religious military doctor earning a modest income. His wife, who was twenty years his junior, died of tuberculosis when Edvard was only five years old, and Edvard’s older sister, Sophie, died of the disease at the age of fifteen. Edvard himself was often ill. A younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings only one, Andreas, ever married, only to die a few months after the wedding. His childhood home was culturally stimulating, but in his art Munch turned time and again to the memory of illness, death and grief.

After a year at Technical School, Munch became dedicated to art. He studied the old masters, attended courses in the painting of nudes at the Royal School of Drawing and was instructed for a time by Norway’s leading artist, Christian Krohg. Munch’s early works were influenced by French-inspired Realism.

In 1885 Munch went on a short study tour of Paris. That year he started on the work that was to be his breakthrough, “The Sick Child,” in which he makes a radical break with the realistic approach seen in a similar motif by Christian Krohg.

1885-86 The Sick Child oil on canvas 120 x 118.5 cm National Art Museum, Oslo
(Munch’s painting looks as though it may have actually been influenced by a combination of two of Krohg’s works):

Christian Krohg "Sick Girl" 1880-81 oil on canvas The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Christian Krohg 1883 Sleeping mother with Child

Munch’s painting was about his sister Sophie. He struggled with the motif for a long time, searching for “the first impression’ and a valid painterly expression for a painful personal experience. He had renounced perspective and plastic form, and had attained a composition formula reminiscent of icons. The coarse texture of the surface displayed all the signs of a laborious creative process, The crirtcism was very negative. (As with many of Munch’s masterworks, he revisited the idea time and again, and I will show these themed works together. “The Sick Child” is featured in part 2 of this series).

Munch’s main works from subsequent years are less provocative in their form. “Inger on the Beach” from 1889 shows his ability to portray a lyrical atmosphere, in keeping with the new romantic trend of that time. The painting is set in Åagårdstrand, a small coastal town. It is this region’s characteristic coastline we find used as a meaningful “leitmotif” in so many of Munch’s compositions.


1889 (Summer Night) Inger on the Beach oil on canvas 126.5 x 161.5 cm Bergen Art Museum, Norway

In 1889 he painted a portrait of the leader of the Christiana bohemians, Hans Jæger. Munch’s association with Jæger and his circle of radical anarchists became a crucial turning point in his life and a source of new inner unrest and conflict. At that time Munch commenced an extensive biographical literary production which he resumed at different periods in his life. These early writings serve as a reference for several of the motifs of the ‘nineties. In keeping with Jæger’s ideas he wanted to present truthful close-ups of the modern individual’s longings and agonies – he wanted to paint his own life.

1889 Hans Jæger oil on canvas 109 x 84 cm National Art Museum, Oslo

In the autumn of 1889 Munch held a large exhibition in Christiana, and was thereafter awarded a state travel grant for three consecutive years. Naturally, he went to Paris, where for a short time he was the pupil of Léon Bonnat, but he became more inspired by acquainting himself with the city’s art life. At that time a Post-Impressionist breakthrough was in progress along with different anti-naturalist experiments. This had a liberating effect on Munch. “The camera cannot compete with a brush and canvas,” he wrote. “ as long as it can’t be used in heaven and hell.”

The first autumn, shortly after Munch arrived in France, he was informed that his father had died. The loneliness and melancholy in the 1890 painting “Night in Saint-Cloud” are often seen with this in mind. The dark interior with the lonely figure at the window is completely dominated by tones of blue – a painting of nuances which may be reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler’s work, is also an expression of the “decadence” in the final decade of the century.

1890 Night in Saint-Cloud oil on canvas 70 x 56.5 cm National Art Museum, Oslo

At the Autumn Exhibition in Christiana in 1891 Munch showed among works “Melancholy.” Great curved lines and more homogeneous colour surfaces dominate here; there is a simplifying and formalising of the motif similar to that found in French Synthetism. “Symbolism – nature is formed by one’s state of mind,” wrote Munch.

1891 Melancholy pencil, crayon and oil on canvas 73 x 101cm Munch Museum, Oslo

At this time Munch did the first sketches of the well-known “The Scream.” He also painted several pictures in an Impressionist style verging on pointillism, with motifs from the Seine and from Christiana’s promenade, Karl Johan. However it is the impressions of the soul, and not the eye. That are Munch’s main interest.

1891 Rue Lafayette oil on canvas 92 x 73 cm National Art Museum, Oslo

“The Scream” is often described as the first expressionistic picture, and is the most extreme example of Munch’s ‘soul paintings.” The facial expression depends to a large degree on the painting’s dynamics, the colours and the lines. The scene – and particularly the foreground figure – are grotesquely distorted and rendered in colours that are not taken from external reality. Coming as it does from Munch’s own “inner hell,” the painting visualizes a desperate aspect of the fin-de-siècle: anxiety and apocalypse. The percussiveness of the motif shows that it also speaks to our day and age.

1893 The Scream casein-wax crayon and tempera on cardboard 91 x 73.5 cm National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo


In the autumn of 1892 Munch gave a broad presentation of his art, in which he included the fruits of his sojourn in France. This exhibition resulted in Minch being invited to show the same paintings to the Artist’s Association of Berlin. It was a formidable “success de scandale.” The general public and the older painters interpreted Munch’s art as anarchistic provocation, and the exhibition was closed in protest.

Because of that Munch had made a name for himself in Berlin and he decided to stay there. He entered a circle of literati, artists and intellectuals, including a strong element of Scandinavians. The circle numbered among others the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the Danish writer Holger Drachman, the Polish poet Przybyszewski and the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe. Of most importance to Munch was the meeting with Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, They discussed the philosophy of Nietzsche, occultism, psychology and the dark sides of sexuality.


In December 1893 Munch had an exhibition at Unter den Linden where he showed, among other things, six paintings entitled “Study for a Series: Love.” This was the beginning of a cycle he would later call the “Frieze of Life – A Poem about Life, Love and Death.” It includes motifs that are steeped in atmosphere such as “The Storm,” “Moonlight” and “Starry Night,” where one dimly perceives the influence of Arnold Böcklin. Other motifs illuminate the nocturnal side of love, such as “Rose and Amelie” and “Vampire.” Several pictures have death as a theme: “Death in the Sickroom” (1893) created quite a stir. In this composition Munch’s debt to the French Synthetists and Symbolists is obvious. Painted in garish and pallid colours, the picture shows a scene frozen fast like the final tragic tableau in a drama. The motif is based on the memory of his sister Sophie’s death, and the whole family is represented. The dramatic focus in the picture is on the figure that represents Munch himself.

1893 Death in the Sickroom oil on canvas 134.5 x 160 cm Munch Museum, Oslo

The following year the “Frieze of Life” was enlarged by motifs such as “Anxiety,” “Ashes,” “Madonna” and “Woman in Three Stages,” the latter a monumental motif completely in keeping with the spirit of Symbolism.

1894 Woman in Three Stages oil on canvas 164 x 250 cm

In the Spring of 1896 Munch left Berlin and settled down in Paris, where his associates again included Strindberg. He was now devoting greater attention to the graphic medium, at the expense of painting. In Berlin he had begun etching and lithography; he was now making exquisite colour lithographs and his first woodcuts in partnership with the famous printer Auguste Clot. Munch also had plans for publishing a portfolio titled “The Mirror,” a graphic version of the “Frieze of Life.” Today Munch is regarded as one of the classics in graphic arts, owing to his unique command of the medium and his great artistic originality.

1896 Moonlight I woodcut


Back in Norway in 1898 he drew the illustrations for a special issue of the German periodical “Quickborn,” which was written by Strindberg.

1898 Quickborn

Around the turn of the century Munch tried to finish the Frieze. He painted a number of pictures, several of them in larger format and to some extent featuring the art nouveau aesthetics of the time. He made a wooden frame with carved reliefs for a large painting “Metabolism” (1898). Initially called Adam and Eve,” the work reveals the central place the fall of man myth has in Munch’s pessimistic philosophy of love. Motifs such as “The Empty Cross” (1900) and “Golgotha” (1900) reflect a metaphysical orientation to the times, and also echo Munch’s pietistic upbringing. The turbulent love affair he had at this time strengthened Munch’s view of art as a calling.

The turn of the century was a phase of restless experimentation. A more colourful and decorative style manifests itself, influenced by the art of the Nabis, particularly Maurice Denis. (See my blog post from 2011): http://www.poulwebb.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/maurice-denis-part-1.html As early as 1899 Munch painted “The Dance of Life,” which which can be interpreted as a daring and personal monumentaliszation of this decorative flat style.


1899-1900 The Dance of Life oil on canvas 125.7 x 190.5 cm National Gallery, Oslo

A series of landscape paintings from the Christiana fjord, decorative and sensitive studies of nature, are regarded as highlights in Nordic symbolism. The classic and evocative “Girls on the Bridge” was painted in Åsgårdstrand in the summer of 1901. (There are many versions of this painting, two of them dated 1901 - I'm opting for this one):

1901 The Girls on the Bridge oil on canvas 136 x 125.5 cm National Gallery of Art, Oslo

In the early years of the new century Munch was in the process of firmly establishing his career. In 1902 he showed the entire Frieze for the first time at the Secession exhibition in Berlin. An exhibition in Prague in 1905 had an impact on several Czech artists. Portraits, usually full-length, gradually constituted an important part of his œuvre. The group of Dr. Linde’s sons (1903) is reckoned to be one of the masterpieces of modern portraiture.

1903 The Four Sons of Dr. Linde oil on canvas 144 x 199.5 cm Lubecker Museen, Lubeck, Germany

Artistic success was accompanied by personal conflicts. Alcohol became a problem, and Munch was emotionally unstable. He was plagued by the memories of his tragic love affair, which had come to dramatic end with a revolver scene in Åsgårdstrand in the autumn of 1902, permanently injuring a finger on Munch’s left hand. He never forgot the ignominy of this incident, but during these years it became an obsession. The woman’s features can be seen in “Death of Marat,” a motif which more generally can be said to portray “the battle between men and women.”

1907 Death of Marat I 150 x 200 cm Munch Museum, Oslo

New motifs for this period show signs of a more extroverted orientation. However hid alcohol and mental problems reached a critical point, and Munch decided to spend eight months in at a clinic in Copenhagen. Norway finally opened its eyes to his artistic talent, and he was awarded the Order of St. Olav during his stay at the clinic.

From 1909 and for the rest of his life Munch resided in Norway. At first he settled down in Kragerø, a coastal town father south. Here he painted several classic winter landscapes and threw himself enthusiastically into the competition for the decoration of the University of Christiana’s new auditorium, the Aula.

In Kragerø he built large outdoor studios where he worked for several years on the designs for Aula. After prolonged controversy Munch’s designs were finally accepted and installed in the auditorium in 1916. According to Munch himself, the motifs in the Aula celebrate the “perpetual forces of life.” The background motif shows a sunrise over the fjord, based on the view from the property Munch rented in Kragerø. The large canvases “History” and “Alma Mater” hand like pendants in the Aula.

1911-16 History oil on canvas 429 x 1155 cm Munch Museum, Oslo

1911-16 Alma Mater oil on canvas 455 x 1160 cm Oslo University, Norway

Munch showed an interest in the growing Labour Movement in several motifs from this time, some of them monumental in character. “Workers on Their Way Home” (1913-14) is also a dynamic study of perspective and movement.

1913-14 Workers on Their Way Home oil on canvas 201 x 227 cm Munch Museum, Oslo

In 1916 Munch purchased the property Ekely outside Christiana (renamed Oslo in 1924). Landscaped, people in harmony with nature, horses and ploughing – these were the motifs which were now portrayed in strong, clear colours.

At Ekely Munch lived to a steadily greater degree in self-chosen isolation, Spartan, surrounded only by his pictures. He was constantly productive, but parted only reluctantly with “his children.” Arrangements were made to lend the pictures to a number of international exhibitions.

In his later years Munch painted a number of studies and compositions using a model. Some of these have a vigorous and life-embracing quality, while in others he continued to explore the conflict-filled themes of the 1980s. He continued to produce a considerable number of graphics, including a number of lithographic portraits.

Before Munch died in January 1944, he had willed his large collection of pictures and un-catalogued biographical and literary notes to the City of Oslo. Consequently, the Munch Museum, dedicated in 1963, has a unique collection of Munch’s art and other materials, which illuminate all phases of the artistic process.

The National Gallery in Oslo also has an exquisite Munch collection particularly rich in main, early paintings. Major works are also found at the Bergen Art Gallery.

The author of the article, Dr. Frank Høifødt had worked for many years at the Munch Museum when he earned his doctorate in 1995 with a thesis on Munch’s life and art anno 1900.


This is part 1 of a 20 – part series of posts on the works of Edvard Munch.

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