Edvard Munch and the Physiology of Symbolism

By Shelley Wood Cordulack | Go to book overview

3
The Physiological Basis of The Frieze of Life

Although Munch did not apply the title Frieze of Life to his paintings until 1918 (in a newspaper article for Tidens Tegn of October 15, and in the catalogue for the Blomquist Art Exhibition in Kristiania that opened the same day), he had thought of grouping his paintings as early as 1892. Munch's conception of the Frieze of Life began in 1893 as a series of paintings about life and death.

That which constituted the former and ruled out the latter was the first matter of discussion in the field of physiology. In 1932 (N 46) Munch explained that what he wanted was to [clarify life] and what it meant; in a 1933 draft of a letter to his friend Jens Thiis, Munch wrote that [what [he] wanted was to paint the living life and [his] own life.] In like manner Claude Bernard had said, [without knowing what life is, I believe we must master it.]1 In their own ways, both Munch and the physiologists were involved in a search for the secret of life.

As the human body maintained a harmonic state (homeostasis) critical to the maintenance of life, so the Frieze of Life was a living unit. Like the physiologists who realized that the living being should be looked upon as a harmonious whole, Munch also saw his works as a living, harmonious whole. He frequently referred to the beach in the landscape background of several of the works as that which bound one to the next and provided an [undulating, throbbing life.]2 For him the landscape was a living body; he even commented once that the earth sweats.3 The landscapes that form this unifying backdrop to the Frieze of Life are analogous to a kind of connective tissue. The various kinds of tissues (neural, arterial, venous, muscular, fibrous, glandular, and epidermal) had first been distinguished by Marie François Bichat in France in 1802,4 although it was not until later in the century with the improvement of the microscope that the tissues were seen to be made up of cells. Later in the century Bernard also studied the properties of living tissue. Cross sections of human tissue appeared as illustrations in many nineteenth-century physiology textbooks.

What would appear to be human tissue in these landscapes serves as a visual symbol for the earth as a sentient being, provides the means of organizing space within the individual work, and forms a part of the landscape undulations linking one work to another within the Frieze. One of the most beautiful of such landscapes is Munch's 1895 painting Moonlight. Its existence as a living being is in part suggested by the flesh tones permeating the landscape (as in the 1894 Woman in Three Stages), but even more so by the compressed and stacked aspects of the landscape. The shoreline with its rocks, the shallow sea, the deep sea, horizon, and sky seem nothing so much as a cross-section of skin—live, human tissue. Such a comparison would suggest that Munch's landscape is the actual, wondrous and sometimes ironically beautiful substance of life itself, the raw material with which all humans are provided and play out their lives of love, jealousy, pain, and sorrow. Two People (The Lonely Ones) (1895) provides yet another example, where the figures stand like hair in follicles growing out of human tissue, but perhaps already half-dead. Munch's friend Emanuel Goldstein had written in 1891 that [every picture is really nothing more than the shedding of skin.]5 In this work, two people grow out of a landscape that is part of an immense living organism; they are separated from one another but are rooted in and part of the larger, living system and processes of life. On the other hand, the entire universe is encoded in the microcosm of a slice of human tissue. Munch's landscape could thus refer to the artistic process itself at the same time that his treatment of the landscape in this manner helps to make visible his intent of the [living life] of the Frieze, providing it with the harmonious, living unity necessary for the maintenance of the Life of the Frieze.

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Edvard Munch and the Physiology of Symbolism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • List of Illustrations 7
  • Preface 9
  • Introduction 11
  • 1: The Physiological Context for Munch's Early Artistic Maturation in France and Germany, 1889–1895 15
  • 2: Munch's Biography in the Context of Physiology 21
  • 3: The Physiological Basis of the Frieze of Life 28
  • 4: The Physiology of Artistic Creation 39
  • 5: Psycho-Physiology 52
  • 6: The Embryology of the Soul 61
  • 7: Love 78
  • 8: The Physiology of Inherited Disease, Death, and Immortality 90
  • 9: Metabolism and Munch's Ideas on the Meaning of Art and Life 97
  • Notes 107
  • Bibliography 125
  • Index 134
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