Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this week’s post, I’m going to be putting the spotlight on an artist whose career has been defined by a single image. Edvard Munch, the Norwegian Expressionist artist, is most famous for his work “The Scream.” However, at his death, it was discovered that his estate was filled to the brim with 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints, not to mention dozens of works in other mediums! Munch was so much more than that and this blog post is going to explore that! So, to learn more, keep on reading!
Edvard Munch was born December 12, 1863. His father, Christian, was a physician and his mother, Laura, was a woman half his age! He was one of five children. When he was around a year old, the family moved out of the countryside and to the capital Christiania (now known as Oslo).
When Munch was only five years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. According to his letters and journal entries, this was one of his earliest memories and it haunted him throughout his life. Less than a decade later, the same disease would claim his favorite sister, Joanna. Munch himself would suffer from various health issues throughout his life that were compounded by anxiety and alcoholism.
Christian Munch subscribed to pietism. This was a branch of Lutheranism that focused on personal growth achieved through spiritual rebirth and renewal, individual devotion, and piety. However, Munch’s father’s version was quite morbid. He frequently discussed Munch’s dead mother and how she was always looking down on him and judging his activities. In fact, some may have even described Christian as fanatical. These discussions are what led Munch to have terrifying nightmares that would inform his art.
Beginning of Career
As a young man, Edvard Munch entered college to study engineering. He was quite skilled at the subject, but it didn’t fulfill him and his health issues impacted his ability to attend class. So he dropped out to become a painter. Munch had always shown an affinity for art, but his father was not pleased. He considered the activity unholy.
In 1881, Munch enrolled in the Royal School of Art and Design. Interestingly enough, the school was founded by a distant cousin, Jacob Munch! While studying, he discovered that he was especially talented when it came to portraiture and figure drawing. Munch also studied Impressionist techniques and ideology, but he found that it didn’t allow him enough room for introspection.
Edvard Munch’s big break came in 1889. That year, he moved from Oslo to Paris to participate in the Exposition Universelle in the Norwegian booth. It was here that he met with and was inspired from from other artists that lived and worked in Paris: Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He especially connected with the fact that the works were not seeking to imitate nature, but instead what was in the human soul.
It was around this time that Munch created his most famous work: The Scream. There are actually four versions of this piece: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910). He wrote this about the inspiration: "I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."
It is a haunting piece and part of the reason it is so famous is that a vast number of viewers can connect, in some way, with the personal anguish that sometimes controls us.
As I mentioned earlier, Munch suffered his whole life with anxiety and poor health, and likely compounded by alcohol addiction. In 1899, Munch began an intimate relationship with Tulla Larsen, the wealthy daughter of a successful wine merchant. They traveled around Italy together and Larsen wanted to marry him. Although this provided him with bountiful inspiration, he knew he couldn’t marry her. This third person note explains why: "Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.”
Munch eventually left Larsen in 1900.
In the fall of 1908, Munch suffered from a mental break. He later wrote that ``My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go." He was checked into a mental health facility. This helped him immensely. We can see this in his art from the use of vivid colors and new techniques. In 1912, his art was exhibited in America for the first time.
For the last almost 3 decades of his life, Munch lived in isolation at his estate in Ekely, at Skøyen, Oslo. However, this did coincide with the Nazi occupation of Norway. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch's work "degenerate art". In 1940, the Nazi’s invaded the country and Munch lived in terror that his legacy of thousands of works would be destroyed.
Edvard Munch died on 23 January 1944. He had just turned 80 the month prior. The city of Oslo bought the Ekely estate from Munch's heirs in 1946 and sadly, his house was demolished in 1960. This purchase included his works. In 1963, the city opened the Munch Museum. This collection has become the ultimate authority on his works and remains a popular tourist destination today.
Edvard Munch was more than just a single image. His mental and physical health greatly affected his works, but he managed to transform his suffering into thoughtful, discussion provoking works.
Undated photograph of Edvard Munch. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Sick Child, 1907, Munch. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Scream, 1893, Munch. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Munch, 1933. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Munch Museum, unknown date. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons