Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Norwegian Painter and Printmaker

Born: December 12, 1863 - Loten, Norway
Died: January 23, 1944 - Oslo, Norway
"I do not believe in the art which is not the compulsive result of man's urge to open his heart."
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Edvard Munch Signature
"In my art I have tried to explain to myself life and its meaning. I have also tried to help others to clarify their lives."
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Edvard Munch Signature
"For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness, I should have been like a ship without a rudder."
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Edvard Munch Signature
"No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love."
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Edvard Munch Signature
"From the moment of my birth, the angels of anxiety, worry, and death stood at my side, followed me out when I played, followed me in the sun of springtime and in the glories of summer."
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Edvard Munch Signature
"The camera cannot compete with the brush and the palette so long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell."
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Edvard Munch Signature

Summary of Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch was a prolific yet perpetually troubled artist preoccupied with matters of human mortality such as chronic illness, sexual liberation, and religious aspiration. He expressed these obsessions through works of intense color, semi-abstraction, and mysterious subject matter. Following the great triumph of French Impressionism, Munch took up the more graphic, symbolist sensibility of the influential Paul Gauguin, and in turn became one of the most controversial and eventually renowned artists among a new generation of continental Expressionist and Symbolist painters. Munch came of age in the first decade of the 20th century, during the peak of the Art Nouveau movement and its characteristic focus on all things organic, evolutionary, and mysteriously instinctual. In keeping with these motifs, but moving decidedly away from their decorative applications, Munch came to treat the visible as though it were a window into a not fully formed, if not fundamentally disturbing, human psychology.

Accomplishments

  • Edvard Munch grew up in a household periodically beset by life-threatening illnesses and the premature deaths of his mother and sister, all of which was explained by Munch's father, a Christian fundamentalist, as acts of divine punishment. This powerful matrix of chance tragic events and their fatalistic interpretation left a lifelong impression on the young artist, and contributed decisively to his eventual preoccupation with themes of anxiety, emotional suffering, and human vulnerability.
  • Munch intended for his intense colors, semi-abstraction, and mysterious, often open-ended themes to function as symbols of universal significance. Thus his drawings, paintings, and prints take on the quality of psychological talismans: having originated in Munch's personal experiences, they nonetheless bear the power to express, and perhaps alleviate, any viewer's own emotional or psychological condition.
  • The frequent preoccupation in Munch's work with sexual subject matter issues from both the artist's bohemian valuation of sex as a tool for emotional and physical liberation from social conformity as well as his contemporaries' fascination with sexual experience as a window onto the subliminal, sometimes darker facets of human psychology.
  • In a sense similar to his near-contemporary, Vincent van Gogh, Munch strove to record a kind of marriage between the subject as observed in the world around him and his own psychological, emotional and/or spiritual perception.

Biography of Edvard Munch

Detail from <i>Melancholy</i> (1894-96)

Munch’s often confusing and depressing, if not downright disturbing, artworks no doubt developed out of his troubling and traumatic childhood experiences, and the resulting psychological anguish that plagued him throughout his life.



Progression of Art

The Sick Child (1885-86)
1885-86

The Sick Child

The Sick Child is one of Munch's earliest works, considered by the artist "a breakthrough" for setting the tone for his early career in which death, loss, anxiety, madness, and the preoccupations of a troubled soul were his chief subject matter. Devoted to his deceased sister, Johanne Sophie, the painting depicts the bedridden fifteen-year-old with a grieving woman beside her, the latter probably a representation of Munch's mother who had preceded Sophie in death, also from tuberculosis, eleven years prior. The rough brushstrokes, scratched surface, and melancholic tones of this painting all reveal a highly personal memorial. The work was highly criticized for its "unfinished appearance" when first exhibited, but nonetheless championed by Munch's spiritual mentor, Hans Jæger, as a masterful achievement.

Oil on canvas - Tate Gallery, London

Night in St. Cloud (1890)
1890

Night in St. Cloud

If the Sick Child is a loving tribute to Munch's favorite sister, Johanne Sophie, Night in St. Cloud is a far more complex and darker memorial to the artist's father who had died the previous year. Created not long after Munch's arrival in Paris, Night in St. Cloud reveals the immediate influence of Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose many portraits of solitary figures or empty rooms inform this canvas. Munch's tribute to his father is composed of a darkened, seemingly hallowed room bathed in crepuscular light, indeed a space occupied only by shadows and stillness. The rendition is befitting of their tense relationship. In other paintings that focus on death, Munch made the subject physically present; however, in this instance, Munch's father's passing evokes only a sense of cool abandon. Notably, this work presages Pablo Picasso's Blue period.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, Oslo

The Scream (1893)
1893

The Scream

The significance of Munch's The Scream within the annals of modern art cannot be overstated. It stands among an exclusive group, including Van Gogh's Starry Night (1889), Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and Matisse's Red Studio (1911), comprising the quintessential works of modernist experiment and lasting innovation. The fluidity of Munch's lateral and vertical brushwork echoes the sky and clouds in Starry Night, yet one may also find the aesthetic elements of Fauvism, Expressionism, and perhaps even Surrealism arising from this same surface.

The setting of The Scream was suggested to the artist by a walk along a road overlooking the city of Oslo, apparently upon Munch's arrival at, or departure from, a mental hospital where his sister, Laura Catherine, had been interned. It is unknown whether the artist observed an actual person in anguish, but this seems unlikely; as Munch later recalled, "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 ... shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

This is one of two painted versions of The Scream that Munch rendered around the turn of the 20th century; the other (c. 1910) is currently in the collections of the Munch Museum, Oslo. In addition to these painted versions, there is a version in pastel and a lithograph.

Oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard - The National Gallery, Oslo

Madonna (1894-95)
1894-95

Madonna

Contemporary with The Scream, Munch's Madonna is rendered with softer brushstrokes and comparatively subdued pigments. Munch depicts the Virgin Mary in a manner that defies all preceding "historical" representations - from Renaissance-era Naturalism to 19th-century Realism - of the chaste mother of Jesus Christ. With a sense of modesty conveyed only by her closed eyes, the nude appears to be in the act of lovemaking, her body subtly contorting and bending towards a nondescript light. Indeed, Munch's Madonna may very well be a modernist, if irreverent depiction of the Immaculate Conception. The red halo upon the Madonna's head, as opposed to the customary white or golden ring, indicates a ruling passion befitting Baroque-era renditions of the subject, minus any measure of religious discretion. While the artist himself never fully succumbed to his father's religious fervor and teachings, this work clearly suggests Munch's constant wrangling over the exact nature of his own spirituality.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, Oslo

Puberty (1894-95)
1894-95

Puberty

Agony, anxiety and loss are constant themes throughout Munch's oeuvre, yet perhaps nowhere do they come together as powerfully as in Munch's Puberty, a portrait of adolescence and isolation. The lone and guarded female figure symbolizes a state of sexual depression and frustration - both of which plagued the artist himself throughout his life while the girl, although apparently shy (to judge by her posture), indicates quite the opposite by way of her frank stare. The looming shadow behind the figure hints at the birth of an ominous and sentient creature, perhaps one haunting her room, if indeed it is not her own dawning persona. The aesthetic qualities of Post-Impressionism are still very much present in Munch's work at this time, but what sets his work apart is the powerful element of symbolism. Munch is painting not necessarily what he sees, but what he feels in front of him. Munch usually painted, in fact, from imagination rather than from life, but here the uncharacteristic detailing of the girl's body - in particular the collar bone is considered by many evidence that, at least in this instance, Munch resorted to the use of a live model.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Oslo

Spring Ploughing (1918)
1918

Spring Ploughing

In the years following Munch's hospital stay the artist removed himself from the lifestyle of carousing and heavy drinking and devoted his days to his art and to the countryside of his homeland. While at one time the artist referred to his paintings as "my children," by this time he began referring to them as "my children with nature." This new-found inspiration, in the form of farm hands, animals, and the Norwegian landscape, took Munch's art in an entirely new direction, one celebrating life and work, rather than anxiety and loss. In Spring Ploughing, one can see the inspiration Munch took from the much younger Franz Marc - whose Expressionist paintings were originally inspired by Munch - who had a penchant for painting animals in their natural surroundings. Munch's period of creating truly original Symbolist-cum-Expressionist works had since passed, indicated by similar works of this time and their innocent subject matter. Nevertheless, the maturity of this painting's brushwork and palette clearly demonstrate the hand of a master.

Oil on canvas - Munch Museum, Oslo


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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan

"Edvard Munch Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Alexandra Duncan
Available from:
First published on 01 Jun 2011. Updated and modified regularly
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