(Re-) Reading Edvard Munch: Trends in the Current Literature

By Berman, Patricia G. | Scandinavian Studies, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

(Re-) Reading Edvard Munch: Trends in the Current Literature


Berman, Patricia G., Scandinavian Studies


FEW ARTISTS SEEM TO PRESENT their public with as complete a homology between their lives and their art as Edvard Munch (1863-1944). By representing himself, his family, and his friends as the protagonists of moving visual dramas, Munch, more than virtually any artist of the turn of the century, suggests the eradication of the boundary between private experience and public image through his art. Munch's reputation was founded on this suggestion. Perhaps for this reason, the scholarship on Munch has largely taken the form of monographic treatments which reference the tragic events of the artist's life as a way of "explaining" his work. Writings about Munch have tended to recapitulate the artist's traumas and use them as the milestones that mark his torturous journey from cradle to grave. Not infrequently are these markers medical: childhood ordeals (illness, the death of his mother and sister), the physiological instabilities of early adulthood (more illness, tumultuous love affairs, alcoholism), the "watershed experience" of his psychiatric treatment in 1908-09, and the isolation and renewed illnesses of his maturity are often foregrounded as the driving forces of Munch's working life. In other words, the present generation of researchers has inherited a corpus of scholarly work on the artist that is in a sense a chronicle of the artist's mind and body.

This perceived homology between Munch's life and his art, between his physiology (and psychology) and his production is, I believe, the result of a century-long process of myth-making. I use the word "myth" in the sense that Roland Barthes defind the concept (1972)--as a process of absorbing historical events into a "natural" system, and of the masking of this process of absorption so that it appears transparent. As myth, the events of Munch's life have been absorbed into a totalizing drama of alienation. The framing of this drama has varied over time as the successive generational world views of scholars have shaped its terms: Munch was depicted as a pessimistic misogynist in the 1890s, an isolated Nordic genius in early twentieth-century writings, an existentialist hero in the literature of the 1950s, and in the years after 1968, he was reconfigured as an urban bohemian shaped by his cafe milieu.(1) It is a commonplace in biographical writing that authors engage contemporary issues in their work and invest their beliefs and desires in their subjects. As sociologist John Rodden notes, literary reputations "are radically contingent--partly make-believe and always makeshift and made over--being variously created, fashioned, built, manufactured, suppressed, and distorted--in a constant interaction of images and information in and through social relations" (x-xi). What is curious in the case of Munch's literary reputation is its very stability: in an era in which the notion of the artist as the sole creator of artistic meanings has given way to other discourses in art-historical literature, Munch has remained inscribed in a surprisingly narrow biographical realm. In short, I believe that Munch has been stereotyped as being confined by the crises of his body and his mind, and that the interpretation of his work has been limited by this assumption.

Recent scholarly investigations have begun to challenge the stereotype of Munch as unstable, morbid, and alienated from society and are instead repositioning the artist in a larger social and cultural realm. It is my intention in this state-of-the-field article to survey such re-readings of Munch's career and point to what I believe are the most provocative directions in the current scholarship--analyses that, in a sense, move outward from Munch to engage the reception of his images and the shaping of his market. These contextualizing studies are beginning to reformulate "Edvard Munch," in his constructed "literary" sense (ill, asocial, ahistorical), as a more complex "historical"--which is to say, culturally-engaged--artist. …

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