born December 12, 1863 , Löten , Norway
died January 23, 1944 , Ekely, near Oslo
Norwegian painter and printmaker whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes built upon some of the main tenets of late 19th-century Symbolism and greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His painting The Scream, or The Cry (1893), can be seen as a symbol of modern spiritual anguish.
Munch was born into a middle-class family that was plagued with ill health. His mother died when he was five, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis; Munch eventually captured the latter event in his first masterpiece, The Sick Child (1885-86). Munch’s father and brother also died when he was still young, and another sister developed mental illness. “Illness, insanity, and death,” as he said, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”
Munch showed a flair for drawing at an early age but received little formal training. An important factor in his artistic development was the Kristiania Bohème, a circle of writers and artists in Kristiania, as Oslo was then called. Its members believed in free love and generally opposed bourgeois narrow-mindedness. One of the older painters in the circle, Christian Krohg, gave Munch both instruction and encouragement.
Munch soon outgrew the prevailing naturalist aesthetic in Kristiania, partly as a result of his assimilation of French Impressionism after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact from about 1890with the work of the Post-Impressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In some of his paintings from this period he adopted the Impressionists’ open brushstrokes, but Gauguin’s use of the bounding line was to prove more congenial to him, as was the Synthetist artists’ ambition to go beyond the depiction of external nature and give form to an inner vision. His friend the Danish poet Emanuel Goldstein introduced him to French Decadent Symbolist poetry during this period, which helped him formulate a new philosophy of art, imbued with a pantheistic conception of sexuality.
Munch’s own deeply original style crystallized about 1892. The flowing, tortuous use of line in his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau, but Munch used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for profound psychological revelation. The outraged incomprehension of his work by Norwegian critics was echoed by their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his paintings there in 1892 at the invitation of the Union of Berlin Artists. The violent emotion and unconventional imagery of his paintings, especially their daringly frank representations of sexuality, created a bitter controversy. Critics were also offended by his innovative technique, which to most appeared unfinished. The scandal, however, helped make his name known throughout Germany , and from there his reputation spread farther. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892-95 and then in Paris in 1896-97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910.
Paintings of love and death
At the heart of Munch’s achievement is his series of paintings on love and death. Its original nucleus was formed by six pictures exhibited in 1893, and the series had grown to 22 works by the time it was first exhibited under the title Frieze of Life at the Berlin Secession in 1902. Munch constantly rearranged these paintings, and if one had to be sold, he would make another version of it. Thus in many cases there are several painted versions and prints based on the same image. Although the Frieze draws deeply on personal experience, its themes are universal: it is not about particular men or women but about man and woman in general, and about the human experience of the great elemental forces of nature. Seen in sequence, an implicit narrative emerges of love’s awakening, blossoming, and withering, followed by despair and death.
Love’s awakening is shown in The Voice (1893), where on a summer night a girl standing among trees seems to be summoned more by an inner voice than by any sounds from a boat on the sea behind her. Compositionally, this is one of several paintings in the Frieze in which the winding horizontal of the coastline is counterpoised with the verticals of trees, figures, or the pillar like reflection across the sea of sun or moon. Love’s blossoming is shown in The Kiss(1892), in which a man and woman are locked in a tender and passionate embrace, their bodies merging into a single undulating form and their faces melting so completely into each other that neither retains any individual features. An especially powerful image of the surrender, or transcendence, of individuality is Madonna (1894-95), which shows a naked woman with her head thrown back in ecstasy, her eyes closed, and a red halo-like shape above her flowing black hair. This may be understood as the moment of conception, but there is more than a hint of death in the woman’s beautiful face. In Munch’s art, woman is an “other” with whom union is desperately desired, yet feared because it threatens the destruction of the creative ego.
In other works forming the Frieze, Munch explored the theme of suffering caused by love, as seen in such titles as Melancholy (c. 1892-93), Jealousy (1894-95), and Ashes (1894). If isolation and loneliness, always present in his work, are especially emphasized in these pictures, they are equally apparent in Death in the Sick Room (1893-95), one of his many paintings about death. Here the focus is not on the dying child, who is not even visible, but on the living, each wrapped in their own experience of grief and unable to communicate or offer each other any consolation. The picture’s power is heightened by the claustrophobically enclosed space and by the steeply rushing perspective of the floor.
The same type of dramatic perspective is used in The Scream (1893), which is Munch’s most famous work. Inspired by a hallucinatory experience in which Munch felt and heard a “scream throughout nature,” it depicts a panic-stricken creature, simultaneously corpselike and reminiscent of a sperm or foetus, whose contours are echoed in the swirling lines of the blood-red sky. In this painting anxiety is raised to a cosmic level, ultimately related to the ruminations on death and the void of meaning that were to be central to Existentialism. His art also had evident affinities with the poetry and drama of his day, and interesting comparisons can be made with the work of the dramatists Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, both of whose portraits he painted.
Munch’s massive output of graphic art-consisting of etchings, dry-points, lithographs, and woodcuts-began in 1894. The principal attraction to him of printmaking was that it enabled him to communicate his message to a much larger number of people, but it also afforded him exciting opportunities for experimentation. His lack of formal training in any graphic medium was no doubt a factor in pushing him toward extremely innovative techniques. Like many of his contemporaries, he was influenced by the Japanese tradition in his use of the wood-cut, but he radically simplified the process by, for example, printing from a single block of wood sawed into a number of small pieces. Munch’s use of the actual grain of the wood for expressive purposes proved an especially successful experiment, and it greatly influenced later artists. He also frequently combined different media or overlaid one medium on top of another. Munch’s prints closely resemble his paintings in both style and subject matter.
Munch suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908-09, and afterward his art became more positive and extroverted without recovering its previous intensity. Among the few exceptions is his haunting Self-Portrait: The Night Wanderer (c. 1930), one of a long series of self-portraits he painted throughout his life. An especially important commission, which marked the belated acceptance of his importance in Norway , was for the Oslo University Murals (1909-16), the centrepiece of which was a vast painting of the sun, flanked by allegorical images. Both landscapes and men at work provided subjects for Munch’s later paintings. Yet it was principally through his work of the 1890s, in which he gave form to mysterious and dangerous psychic forces, that he made such a crucial contribution to modern art. In 1937 his work was included in the Nazi exhibition of “degenerate art.” Upon his death, Munch bequeathed his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to the city of Oslo , which erected the Munch Museum in 1963. Many of his finest works are in the National Gallery in Oslo.
Munch was a leader in the revolt against the naturalistic dictates of 19th-century academic painting and also went beyond the naturalism still inherent in Impressionism. His concentration on emotional essentials sometimes led to radical simplifications of form and an expressive, rather than descriptive, use of colour. All these tendencies were taken up by a number of younger artists, notably the leading proponents of German Expressionism. Perhaps his most direct formal influence on subsequent art can be seen in the area of the woodcut. His most profound legacy to modern art, however, lay particularly in his sense of art’s purpose to address universal aspects of human experience. Munch was heir to the traditional mysticism and anxiety of northern European painting, which he re-created in a highly personal art of the archetypal and symbolic. His work continues to speak to the typically modern situation of the individual facing the uncertainty of a rapidly changing contemporary world.