Edvard Munch, 1863- 1944
By Anna Niederlander
Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, sold for more than $119 million in 2012. To many it is the Mona Lisa of the fin-de-siècle. It is filled with anxiety and stress but is also incredibly enigmatic. We are barred from knowing what the protagonist is screaming at. It implies that the horror is behind us. Munch’s goal was not solely to depict an image, but to stress the emotion and psychology that the image held, contorting the form and landscape to create a more psychologically accurate representation of the experience of life and identity.
Munch was born on December 12th, 1963 in Loten, Norway. His life was filled with illness; his mother and sister died during his childhood, one of his sisters struggled with mental illness and his only brother died of pneumonia at the age of 30. His father was a Christian fundamentalist and believed that the death that surrounded his family was a divine punishment. His father also struggled with depression and read his children gothic horror stories by Edgar Allan Poe. This all had a lasting impact on Munch’s life.
Art gave him a means of escape and in 1881 he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design. Three years later, Munch received a scholarship to travel to Paris where influential artists of the time, such as Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, inspired him. This was a turning point in Munch’s style, breaking away from Realism and developing his expressionistic style. After returning to Oslo he produced “The Sick Child,” which expresses his feelings surrounding his sisters death nine years previously.
Following his father’s death in 1888, he created some of his most prominent, and most disturbing, works, such as The Scream, which can be seen to reflect his increasingly unstable mental health. His self-portrait of 1886 is impressionistic and blurred, his gaze is distant, and his hair is untidy; it shows a man who experiences sleepless nights and alcohol problems. In 1903, he checked himself into a private sanitarium.
His love life was not much better. He had his first affair at age 21 and it was with the wife of a distant cousin, who left him heartbroken after two years. His next relationship was with a woman from whom he kept trying to escape; however, he was unable to because of her own mental instability. During a fight with her he shot himself and lost part of a finger on his left hand. His work The Dance of Life, 1900, depicts the unhappiness that resulted from these two relationships. A man and a woman in a red dress – a signifier of the femme fatale – dance in the centre of the painting, and they are flanked by a woman on either side. On the left is a smiling woman in a white flowery dress, an image of comfort. On the right, however, is a sallow-skinned, hollow-cheeked woman dressed in black. He is haunted by both his lost angel, who stands behind him, and the ever-present witch who drains him.
His works reflect his life experiences, and titles like Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety, and Death in the Sickroom reflect the constant fear and instability he lived with. He said
It is these haunting images that we are left with, but, despite the clear biographical influence on his work, they also encompass the general pain of human existence. Studying them allows us to reflect on life, its meaning, and hopefully help us find our own way along its winding path.
“Edvard Munch.” Biography.com, November 17, 2016. Accessed 10th Dec. 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/edvard-munch-9418033
Lubow, Arthur. “Edvard Munch: Beyond the Scream.” The Smithsonian, March 2006. Accessed 10th Dec. 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/edvard-munch-beyond-the-scream-111810150/