Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Style: Expressionism, Symbolism

Lived: December 12, 1863 - January 23, 1944 (19th - 20th century)

Nationality: Norway

INTRODUCTION

Edvard Munch (Løten, December 12, 1863 - Ekely (near Oslo), January 23, 1944) was a Norwegian Expressionist painter and printmaker. His intense, evocative treatment of psychological anguish was a major influence on the development of German Expressionism in the early 20th century. The Scream (1893; originally called Despair), which is probably Munch's most famous painting, is regarded as an icon of existential anguish. As with many of his works, he painted several versions of it. The Scream is one of a number of works in a series entitled The Frieze of Life, which Munch assembled round the turn-of-the-century; it deals with themes of life, love, fear, death and melancholy.

All of these themes recur throughout Munch's work, in paintings such as The Sick Child (1886, portrait of his deceased sister Sophie), Vampire (1893-94), Ashes (1894) and The Bridge. The latter shows limp figures with featureless or hidden faces, over which loom the threatening shapes of heavy trees and brooding houses. Munch portrayed women either as frail, innocent sufferers or as lurid, life-devouring vampires. This reflects Munch's sexual anxieties.


MUNCH'S YOUTH

Munch was born on December 12th, 1863, Løten, Norway, but grew up in Christiania (now Oslo). Munch was related to painter Jacob Munch (1776-1839) and historian Peter Andreas Munch (1810-1863). After the death of his mother, Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, of tuberculosis in 1868, Munch was raised by his (mentally ill) father, Christian Munch, who instilled in his children a deep-rooted fear for hell by repeatedly telling them, that if they sinned in any way, shape or form, they would be doomed for hell, without any chance of pardon. While Munch was still young, his parents (in 1868 and 1889), a brother and Munch's favourite sister Sophie (in 1877) died. A younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Edvard himself was often ill. Of the five siblings only one, Andreas, ever married, only to die a few months after the wedding. This probably explains the bleakness and pessimism of much of Munch's work. Munch would later say: "Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life."


MUNCH AS A PAINTER

In 1879, Munch entered Technical College to become an engineer. However, frequent illnesses interrupted his studies. In 1880, Munch left College to become a painter. In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania (later Oslo). His teachers there were sculptor Julius Middelthun and naturalistic painter Christian Krohg. In 1885, Munch traveled to Paris. His work began to show the influence of French painters; first of the impressionists, and then of the postimpressionists and of art nouveau design. While stylistically influenced by the postimpressionists, Munch's subject matter is symbolist in content, depicting a state of mind rather than an external reality.

In 1892, Munch was invited by the Union of Berlin Artists to exhibit at its November exhibition. Munch's paintings became the object of bitter controversy. After one week, the exhibition was closed. In Berlin, Munch became involved in an international circle of writers, artists and critics, including the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (Munch designed the sets for several of Ibsen's plays) and the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.

Between 1892 and 1908, Munch spent much of his time in Paris and Berlin, where he became known for his etchings, his lithographs, and his woodcuts. At the turn of the century, while in Berlin, Munch had begun experimenting with a variety of new media (photography, lithography and woodcuts), in many instances re-working his older imagery. In the autumn of 1908, Munch's anxiety became acute and he was hospitalized in the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. The shock therapy Munch received in hospital changed his personality. After returning to Norway in 1909, Munch showed more interest in nature, and his work became more colourful and less pessimistic. During the Nazi era, Munch's works were labeled "degenerate art" and were removed from German museums. This deeply hurt (the antifascist) Munch, who had come to see Germany as his second fatherland.

During his career, Munch changed his idiom many times. In the 1880s, Munch's idiom was Naturalistic (such as Portrait of Hans Jæger) and partly Impressionistic (see Rue Lafayette). In 1892, Munch formulated his characteristic and original Synthetist idiom (such as Melancholy), in which colour was the symbol-laden element (for example, The Scream). During the 1890s, Munch favoured a shallow pictorial space, and placed in it his frequently frontal figures. Since their poses were chosen to produce the most convincing images of the states of mind and psychological conditions (see Ashes) he wished to depict, they tended to lend the paintings a monumental, static quality. Munch's figures appear to be playing roles on a theatre stage (as in. Death in the Sick-Room), even perhaps, a pantomime of fixed postures signifying the emotions. Because he gave his characters one psychological dimension only (as in The Scream), Munch's men and women are not realistic. Munch maintained that Impressionism was an idiom which did not suit his art. Munch was interested in portraying not a random slice of reality but situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy. That is why his compositions are carefully calculated to create this tense atmosphere.


MUNCH'S DEATH

Munch died in Ekely, near Oslo, on January 23rd, 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. He left 1,000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 4,500 drawings and watercolors, and 6 sculptures to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum (at Tøyen) in his honor. This museum houses the broadest collection of his works. Some of his paintings are at the National Gallery, also in Oslo. The bar Dagligstuen at Hotel Continental in Oslo has a number of good prints.

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