Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Munch-Ibsen Connection: Exposing A Critical Myth

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Munch-Ibsen Connection: Exposing A Critical Myth

Article excerpt

MUNCH MADE HIS first illustration of an Ibsen play when he was fourteen years old, a drawing of a scene from Kongsemnerne (The Pretenders). By the end of his life, he had created around 400 paintings, graphics, and drawings inspired by Ibsen's plays. Among these are a few commissions,(1) but the great bulk are private works the artist created for his own pleasure and kept for himself. They are part of the great bequest Munch made to the city of Oslo in his will, the donation which The Munch Museum was founded to house.

Munch revered Ibsen as a fellow Norwegian artist who had achieved world fame and, importantly, had done so by triumphing over the Philistines. Munch's enemies were Ibsen's the "smalig" critics and good burghers who had reviled the iconoclastic dramatist as they reviled the scandalous painter. Munch quoted until the end of his life the words of support that Ibsen gave him in 1895 when the grand old man visited his exhibition at the Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo: "Tro mig -- det vil gaa Dem som mig -- jo flere fiender jo flere venner" ("Believe me, things will go with you as with me--the more enemies, the more friends").

Munch also felt a deep affinity with his older compatriot because he saw an uncanny resemblance between his own life and Ibsen's fictional world. Reading Ibsen's plays as though the dramatist were an advance chronicler of his own experiences, Munch made portraits of himself as the self-doubter Earl Skule of Kongsemnerne, the playboy pilgrim Peer Gynt, the scion of a diseased family, Osvald, of Gengangere (Ghosts), and, toward the end, the aging John Gabriel Borkman, pacing through his lonely rooms at night.

Over twenty years after Ibsen's death, most probably in 1929, the sixty-six-year-old painter made the striking claim that in one instance the influence had gone the other way: in an undated pamphlet he had privately printed concerning the Life Frieze, the series of paintings he considered to be his most important, Munch wrote that Ibsen had directly drawn upon these paintings, most especially Kvinner i Tre Stadier (Woman in Three Stages), for his last play Nar Vi Dode Vagner (When We Dead Awaken). Munch makes his claim in a passage in which he describes Ibsen's visit to his exhibition:

   Striden gik voldsomt om billedene. -- Der roptes paa boycotting av lokalet
   -- politi. -- En dag troffer jeg Ibsen dernede. -- Han gik bort til mig
   --Det interesserer mig meget -- sa han. -- Tro mig -- det vil gaa Dem som
   mig -- jo flere fiender jo flere venner. -- Jeg maatte gaa reed ham og han
   maatte se paa hvert billede. Der var en hel del av livsfrisen utstillet.
   Den melankolske unge mand ved stranden -- Madonna -- Skrik -- Angst --
   Jalusi - De tre kvinder (eller kvinden i tre stadier) i en lys nat. Isor
   interesserte han sig for -- kvinden i tre stadier. Jeg maatte forklare ham
   det. -- Det er den drommende kvinde -- den livslystne kvinde -- og kvinden
   som nonne -- hun der staar blek bak trorne. -- Saa moret han sig over mine
   portrotter -- hvor jeg hadde unhovet det karakteristiske -- saa det
   streifet karikaturen. -- Noen ar efter skriver Ibsen "Naar de [sic] dode
   vaagner." -- Billedhuggerens vork der ikke blev utfort -- men forsvandt i
   utlandet. -- Jeg fandt igjen flere motiver der lignet mine billeder i
   livsfrisen -- manded der sitter boiet mellem stenene i melankoli. Jalusi -
   Polakken som laa reed en kule i hodet. -- De tre kvinder -- Irene den
   hvitklodde drommende ut mot livet. -- Maja den livslystne -- den nokne. --
   Sorgens kvinde -- reed det stirrende bleke hode mellom stammerne -- Irenes
   skjobne, sykepleirske. -- Disse tre kvinder dukker i Ibsens drama op -- som
   paa mit billede mange steder. -- En lys sommernat var den morkklodde set
   gaa i haven sammen reed Irene, der var noken eller i et slags badekostyme.
   -- Det lystne hvite legeme mot sorgens sorte farver -- alt i den lyse
   sommernats mystiske lys. … 
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