The Compulsive Subjectivity of Edvard Munch

By Julius, Muriel | Contemporary Review, January 1993 | Go to article overview

The Compulsive Subjectivity of Edvard Munch


Julius, Muriel, Contemporary Review


OF all paintings, the paintings of the nineteenth century Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, are the antitheses of accepted Anglo-Saxon artistic taste. Not for us the revelation of tormented relationships set down for all to see, the hysteria of sorrow made plain. It is all too explicit, too autobiographical. Yet Munch is by far Norway's most famous painter. It always amazed me that Francis Bacon, his equal in depicting human anguish, and in my opinion the greatest British painter this century, found fame in this country, while Munch is largely unknown.

Munch's paintings, now being shown in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, were a passionate denial of everything that had been accepted as a picture at all. They abnegated the sensible world. The public of his day wished the painter to express only what he saw; Munch retorts vehemently that he does paint only what he sees. On this point there was continual indignation for of course when one speaks of 'seeing', everyone means something totally different.

In his essay, Literature and Revolution, in 1923, Leon Trotsky wrote: 'It is not to be argued that the separation of art from other aspects of social life was the result of the class structure of society'. Nowhere was this more true than in the Norway of the late nineteenth century. Munch was unique at the time: his comparative wealth made that separation of no consequence.

Some years ago in the National Gallery of Art in Oslo I admired the works of four or five marvellous artists, all contemporaries or friends of Munch. Why had one never heard of them? I learned that artists were not highly regarded in Norway at that time; their works did not sell; they were forced to turn elsewhere to make a living. Munch's prosperity allowed him to devote himself to painting and his output was prodigious. When he died he left one thousand oil paintings to the Munch Museum in Oslo, over fifteen thousand prints and more than four thousand water-colours and drawings. His city is pervaded by reproductions of his works to an extent I have never experienced elsewhere.

Edvard Munch was born in Loten, near Oslo in 1863. His childhood was traumatic. His father was dementedly pious and his mother and eldest sister died of consumption while he was still young. 'Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle,' he wrote. His obsession with these tragic events found recurring expression in such paintings as 'The Sick Child,' 'The Room of Death' and 'The Dead Mother'.

His painting career began conventionally enough at the School of Arts and Crafts in Oslo, but by 1884 he evinced ideas on ethics and sexual morality far in advance of their time. In the Paris of 1885 he had his first encounter with the work of the Impressionists and the Symbolist paintings of Gauguin and his non-naturalistic colours. Gauguin was then living in Brittany prior to leaving for Tahiti; Monet would shortly begin his famous series paintings of haystacks, Cathedrals et al. From 1889 to 1891 Munch attended Leon Bonnat's art school in Paris and then went to Germany. From 1892 until 1908 he made his base in Berlin.

In that first year he exhibited over fifty paintings at the Verein Berliner Kunstler (Artists' Union of Berlin). The exhibition caused such an uproar that it was closed within the week. This success de scandale made him famous and these works, forerunners of Expressionism were to influence many German artists. In protest against the closure, Max Liebermann, Ludwig von Hofmann, Curt Herrmann and their friends formed Gruppe XI in 1892. Six years later this gave way to the founding of the Berlin Secession, while in Austria Gustav Klimt started the Vienna Secession.

Soon after this cataclismic event Munch began his major work, the cycle of paintings he called 'The Frieze of Life'. It occupied him from 1893 to 1906. Explaining it, he wrote: 'It will have love and death as its subject matter . …

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