Edvard Munch: a scream that doesn't stop

The creativity of Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) is a reflection of the events in his life and initially serves as an outlet for depressive and anxious feelings. That partly explains the mysterious, terrifying atmosphere that emanates from his early work. The artist paved the way for the German expressionists; his influence on German painting is undeniable. Munch became especially familiar with De Schreeuw; the interest in his art has never ceased.

Youth in the midst of illness

'Illness, madness and death watched over my cradle like black angels and have accompanied me all my life"Edvard Munch said in his later life. Already at his birth on December 12, 1863 in Løten, Norway, his mother was suffering from tuberculosis. Munch's father was a melancholy and morally devout, but also righteous and socially committed man, who certainly cared about his children. The Munch family was hit by disaster after disaster. When Edvard was only five years old, his sick mother died. One of his sisters would also die of TB a few years later. Another sister was mentally ill and also died at a young age.

Development into an artist: disapproval of the public

Self-portrait / Source: Edvard Munch, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
In 1880, after one year of engineering studies, Munch left the technical school. In 1881 he continued his drawing lessons that had already begun at the Royal Drawing School in the capital Kristiania (until 1925 the name of Oslo). In the course of that year he paints his first self-portrait. Munch is inspired and guided by naturalistic painter Christiaan Krogh and is seriously planning to become an artist.
At the age of 22, Munch pays a three-week visit to Paris, as a result of which his work displays impressionistic characteristics. He paints immediately afterwards The sick child (1885 - '86), about which Munch declares that he is making the breakthrough to himself. The work can be seen as a document in which the illness and death of his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 15, is recorded. The artist used a worked-through technique: entire parts were scratched away and repainted. Theme and technology come together in this work, the damaged layer of paint lends the work the extra dimension of death. The method and the image are an early reference to expressionism. The motive of The sick child would return five more times in Munch's work. He would also apply the combination of experiment and expression even more often.
The public in the Norwegian capital was not enthusiastic about it and broke down the work; people would rather see the usual work painted after a model. That acclaim failed to materialize; the general public was simply not used to such a representation. In addition to the usual portraits, people only knew history pieces, still lifes and lovely landscapes. Munch and his art friends, united in the Kristiania-Bohème, including many writers, opposed this bourgeoisie in Oslo. Munch is also disappointed in love: the girl he is deeply in love with is unfaithful to him.

On the way to success: France and Germany

In 1889 Munch has his first solo exhibition in the Norwegian capital with one hundred and ten works, some of which are enthusiastically received. He wins a state grant (eventually even three times) and leaves for Paris, where in the same year he is introduced to works by the symbolists and Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Again he studies the paintings of the Impressionists on display, which are now starting to appeal to the general public. He is particularly interested in their treatment of light.
During his stay in Paris, Munch's father dies, something that touches him deeply. Once back in Norway, the work of the symbolists, especially from the Parisian impressions, lays emphasis on their interplay of lines and leaves no depth. With his stipendia, Munch travels several times to Paris and France. It is in France that the artist has his idea for one Life frieze develops.
In 1892, Munch accepted an invitation for an exhibition in Berlin. The Berlin art of painting is then still miles behind that of the modern Parisian modern. The work of Munch therefore arouses a lot of resistance, and the exhibition closes after a few days. Yet the young generation of Berlin artists are picking up the message. Munch stays in Berlin, he appreciates the lively character of the city and the international company of artists and writers. He seeks connection with the circle around the Swedish writer and painter August Strindberg, in whom he recognizes a soul mate.

Graphic work, Norwegian summers

From 1893 various exhibitions followed in Scandinavia and major German cities, including Berlin again. In 1894, Munch started making etchings in the German capital and a little later with lithographs. Munch is innovative in his graphic work. He sees a way in graphics to make his work known as a reproduction in a wider circle. He experiments a lot with new techniques and combinations of techniques and materials, always having his fixed themes undergo a different treatment. This is how he colors his printed graphic work by hand.
From 1896 the woodcut is added to this in Paris; like no other, Munch makes the properties of the wood part of the design. For example, he uses the less common pine and allows the wood grain and the saw cut to enliven the surface. The artists of the artists' group 'Die Brücke' were happy to be inspired by this.
He also makes color lithographs and exhibits his work in the Salon des Indépendants. Munch provides illustrations for the work of the authors Ibsen and Baudelaire.
In 1896 - '97 Munch buys a house in Åsgårdstrand, a small fishing village by the Oslofjord. The environment, where he already spent the summer and where he comes to rest, returns in various paintings. The work that he paints here in the summer is much more cheerful in color; it is reminiscent of the work of the French Fauvists Matisse and Derain. Despite the lighter use of color, his work still has macabre features. However, it is widely appreciated and often exhibited, both in the Norwegian capital and in European capitals.

Life frieze

De Schreeuw / Source: Edvard Munch, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
The idea of ​​a Life frieze is increasingly taking shape; Munch paints images that represent total life. His paintings are reminiscent of frescoes spontaneously, with loose brush strokes and with a simplification of the motif, painted in large planes.
Munch's approach to the landscape is also very specific, which actually also expresses an inner state of mind. The best known example of this is The Scream (1893), which he painted from his memory of a Norwegian sunset. The colors of the sunset screamed, or as the artist said 'I felt that big scream through nature". Into the lines The Scream can be seen as a precursor to the Jugendstil. The work is expressive-symbolistic, a spiritual experience that connects with the mood of the fin de siècle: fear and despair, oppressive sexuality and morbid moods. It is also a cry out of powerlessness, from a generation that is dealing with an increasingly complex reality. Munch was the first to use primordial fear and conflict as a theme in painting.
Moreover, the special representation of the red sky would be based on a phenomenon that occurred at that time. The enormous eruption of the Krakatau volcano, located between the islands of Java and Sumatra, in 1883 would have had a visible effect on the atmosphere far into Europe.
The artist continued to work until 1900 Life frieze, which will eventually consist of twenty-two parts, including in addition The Scream also Kiss, Madonna and The dance of life. All important life themes have now been depicted and his art colleagues from the Berliner Sezession ask him to exhibit his work. In 1902, not only the first exhibition of the Life frieze place, but Munch also makes a dramatic attempt to break free from the woman in his life. It concerns the Norwegian Tulla Larson, whom he met in 1898.

A celebrated artist with fear of commitment

Main themes in the Life frieze are the woman and the relationship between the sexes. That's why the painting takes The Dance of Life (1899 - 1900) also an important, central place in the cycle. In the middle a couple, where the man is actually Munch himself. For his dance partner in red and the woman on the left in white, the woman on the right in black, there was only one woman model: the Norwegian Tulla Larson. In addition to the relationship with Larson, an English violinist, Eva Mudocci, also plays a role in Munch's life.
Munch regards women as an obstacle that cannot be taken, as a hindrance in the practice of his art. The disaster in his own family is partly the cause of his fear of attachment, which keeps him at a distance. He never fully understands them and often depicts them as vampires or other elusive, insidious creatures. The erotic element is an important counterpart to death: eroticism symbolizes life force. The processed litho Madonna from 1896 is a clear example of this. We see an almost unreal female portrait, accompanied by an embryo with a skull and framed by spermatozoa. Eroticism, life force and death come together in this work.
Munch has since become a celebrated artist with an extensive oeuvre of paintings and graphics. His talent is recognized by fellow painters from various European countries, with whom he is friends and exhibits. In the years 1906-1907 he made stage designs for theater pieces by Ibsen in the Reinhardt theater in Berlin and also the Reinhardt frieze in a room of that theater. Now he is also asked by art protectors and enthusiasts to paint portraits, something that gives him more confidence. He also paints self-portraits.
Despite the artistic prosperity, things are going poorly mentally and physically; Munch is, among other things, alcohol addicted, a workaholic and depressed. For a long time he managed to avoid a fate like that of Van Gogh, until the situation finally derailed in 1908 and Munch had to spend a year in a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen.

Renovation and Norway

The period in the clinic works - however strange it may seem - liberating. Munch just keeps on painting, freed from the demons that tormented him forever. Then he also realizes that after years of wandering through Europe, he wants to return to his home country. If he won the commission there in 1909 to make a mural for the university university, his decision was quickly made. His role on the European art scene is by no means finished; Munch continues to exhibit internationally with the big names of his time.
His fiftieth birthday is celebrated in 1913. In 1916, after various Norwegian wanderings, the artist buys the Ekely estate in the vicinity of the capital. From 1929 Munch works here in a self-built open-air studio, where he also paints in the winter. He almost always works in the open air and exposes his paintings to the elements and the effect of the weather; they must be weathered and as strong as life. He calls his method the horse cure.
In his renewed Norwegian years he paints his surroundings, the workers who live and work there and makes a lot of new work, with brighter and lighter colors. The cuts in his compositions betray the influence of photography, something with which Munch is experimenting.
His attitude towards women has also changed, although he still does not want to share his life with a female partner. That change becomes visible in the images he makes of models; they are no longer portrayed as dangerous women, but rather painted in intimate stillness.

Around World War II

Self-portrait between grandfather clock and bed
Munch is highly appreciated and honored as an artist in Germany. Also from his Norwegian hometown, he remains closely involved with German art life. To support his German colleagues during the crisis, he buys seventy-three graphic works. In 1923 he is appointed to the German Academy of Arts, two years later his appointment to that of Bavaria follows. In 1927 a major retrospective follows in both Berlin and Oslo.
In the 1930s, Munch received a major contract for the new Oslo City Hall, but due to eye problems, he had to stop working on it. His 70th birthday is celebrated in triumph by his countrymen in 1933. In 1937 his work in Germany became like entartet - degenerate - considered and 82 of his works are removed from the German museums. Then the Germans also invade Norway in 1940; from that moment on Munch does not want to know anything about the Germans.
He continues to paint tirelessly. The artist shows his last painting, a self-portrait, as an old gray man, between the grandfather clock and his bed (1940 - '42). A few weeks after his 80th birthday, Munch dies on January 23, 1944. According to his will, he leaves more than 1,000 paintings, 4,400 drawings and 15,000 sheets of printed graphic work to the city of Oslo. That city is therefore building a Munch Museum that is opened in 1963, in honor of Munch's hundredth birthday.

Munch in the twenty-first century

The interest in Munch's work has not faded. In 2013, now 150 years after the artist's birthday, activities throughout Norway are all about Munch. In the capital city of Oslo alone, large overview exhibitions with Munch's work are being organized at two locations, the aforementioned Munch Museum and the Nasjonalgalleriet.
By the way, after years of struggling, there is finally agreement to build a replacement home for Munch's work in Oslo. The new museum, where a large part of his artworks will be on display from 2019, will be erected on the waterfront.
In the Netherlands, van 18 September 2010 to 20 February 2011 held a retrospective exhibition with Munch's work in the Kunsthal Rotterdam for the first time in our country. More than one hundred and fifty paintings and works on paper from private collections offered a chronological overview of the work of this Norwegian painter.
Read more about the life of Munch? In addition to the more or less usual biographies, there is also a graphic novel (translated from Norwegian), written and drawn by a fellow countryman of the artist: Munch: Steffen Kverneland, published by Oog & Blik.

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