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Paintings and Pictures
More obviously than in the case of most artists, Edvard Munch's genius was molded by the circumstances of his life. He was born in 1863 at Leten, north of Christiania (now Oslo), the second of five children of Dr Christian Munch, an army physician, and his wife Laura Cathrine, nee Bjelstad. Though of modest means, the family belonged to the intellectual bourgeoisie, and Edvard's uncle was the great Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch. While Munch was still an infant his family moved to Christiania where he grew up. At first they lived in an old part of the town, later moving to Griinerlokka, a new working-class suburb.
When he was five years old his mother died of tuberculosis and the household management was taken over by her sister Karen Bjolstad. Edvard loved his Aunt Karen and remained devoted to her throughout her long life, but she never superseded his mother, whose loss he felt very keenly Further tragedies ensued: his sister Sophie, a year older, to whom he had been close, also died of tuberculosis, when he was fourteen, and a younger sister, Laura, became mentally ill and at times had to be confined in an institution. Edvard's own health was delicate. His father, originally of a kindly and cheerful disposition, grew puritanically religious, suffering from spells of remorse and depression and subject to explosive rags bordering on insanity. Even without the confirmation supplied by Munch's ownopious notes and diaries it would be clear that such a family background was conducive to anguish and must have exacerbated whatever innate neurotic tendencies he possessed. No wonder he painted death and disease so frequently, especially in his earlier career. Such themes were common in late nineteenth-century painting but in Munch's case, as he himself noted, they were founded on personal experience beyond that of most other artists.
While Munch was still a child his artistic talent was noticed by his Aunt Karen, who encouraged him to draw and later to paint. In 1879 he entered the Christiania Technical College in order to study engineering. By the following year, however, he had dropped this aim and decided to take up painting. For a short while he was enrolled at the School of Design, first studying freehand drawing and later modeling with the conservative sculptor Julius Middelthun. That his gifts, however, were essentially pictorial rather than sculptural is corroborated by the fact that despite this training he rarely produced any sculpture throughout a long and prolific career. In 1882, together with six other budding artists, he rented a studio where their work was supervised by Christian Krohg, in some ways the most radical, politically as well as artistically, of the new naturalistic painters in Norway.
Another prominent naturalist, the landscape painter
Frits Thaulow, held a class in painting in his open-air studio at Modum
which Munch attended in the summer of 1883. Apart from very brief
Around 1884 Munch drifted into the circle of radical writers and artists known as the Christiania Bohemia, from the title of a banned novel by its leader, the anarchist thinker Hans Jaeger; Krohg was a prominent member of the group. These men, under the influence of, among others, Emile Zola and the Danish critic Georg Brandes, advocated naturalism in art and held advanced views on a wide range of political, social and moral issues, including social and economic justice, women's rights, and atheism or freethinking in religion. Though he retained his independence, their views made an enduring impression on Munch. They also preached and practiced free love, with not altogether fortunate results, as they failed to take into account the jealousies it aroused. Not much is known of Munch's affairs except the most important, his intermittent liaison with Millie (Ihlen) Thaulow, the wife of a naval physician related to both Munch and Frits Thaulow, who in the end jilted him. He was embittered by this experience; she was his femme fatale, the primary source of his subsequent misgivings about women.
Thanks to the generosity of Frits Thaulow, who was a friend of his father, the young Munch was able to take a three week trip to Paris, via Antwerp, in 1885. Apart from visits to the Louvre and the Salon, what he saw there is not known, but presumably he encountered works by Manet (whose effect can be detected in his work of the following years), and possibly other modernists. A visit to Copenhagen in 1888, at a time when there was a big French exhibition, certainly acquainted him with some of the French Impressionists, including Jean-Francois Raffaelli. In 1889 he spent the first of many summers at Asgardstrand, on the Oslo Fjord. He was immensely attracted to this seaside village, which he used as a background in a number of pictures and where he eventually bought a cottage.
That same year he took a daring step for a controversial young Christiania artist by holding a one-man show. The response was more favorable than might have been expected, probably in part because the exhibition centered on Spring, a big picture in a more than usually conservative style, which proved highly popular. As a result, on the recommendation of an influential critic he successfully applied for a state scholarship to enable him to study in Paris. There he went that fall, enrolling in the school of Leon Bonnat, a relatively conservative painter who was a popular teacher among foreign art students, including Scandinavians. Munch, however, was bored by his teaching and remained his pupil officially for only four months probably, in fact, for no more than a few weeks. Soon after arriving he learnt of the death of his father, which besides affecting him deeply caused financial worries occasioned by the need to help his now impoverished family. But with the aid of a second scholarship he remained in France for over two years, living in Paris and nearby St Cloud, with brief stays in Nice and summer trips home to Christiania and Asgardstrand. During this time he often suffered from loneliness and ill health. His only close friend appears to have been Emanuel Goldstein, the Danish symbolist poet. Artistically he was changing rapidly. He had ample opportunity to become familiar with the newer movements in French painting, including impressionism, neo-impressionism (or pointillism), and the symbolism or synthetism of Gauguin and his followers, shading into art nouveau. Though Munch never fully absorbed any of these developments they successively acted to transform his art. Meanwhile an idea began to take shape in his mind of grouping together as a series those of his subjects that dealt more fundamentally with the tragedies and problems of life, love and death. Many of these subjects were derived from notes he had written in Christiania years before; some he had already painted in early versions, some were in a state of gestation, others were to come in the future Munch believed that combining related subjects into a unified scheme would increase the expressive impact of the individual pictures. Ultimately the notion crystalized into what he eventually called the Frieze of Life: the permanent decoration of a single hall by such pictures, hung to surround it in a continuous series. The idea was not new; G F Watts had a very similar one over forty years earlier, which he called the House of Life. However there is no evidence that Munch knew this. Neither Watts nor Munch ever realized their ideal. The Frieze of Life, though its components were later exhibited, was never much more than a loose theoretical framework to encompass the most serious subjects of the painter's earlier career.
After returning to Christiania for an exhibition in 1892, feeling himself alienated from artistic life in Norway Munch accepted an invitation to hold an exhibition at the Berlin Artists' Association and moved to that city. The exhibition itself was disastrous; it so shocked the public and the more conservative artists that it had to be closed after a week. But it gave Munch a profitable notoriety. He was taken up by art dealers who arranged exhibitions of his work in various German cities, from the admission charges of which he derived a small income that compensated a little for the meager sale of his pictures. He was nevertheless obliged to live in relative poverty.
By a small but increasing number, however, his art was
genuinely admired; they included Walther Rathenau, the idealistic director
of the AEG company, who became one of his first German patrons. In Berlin
he mixed with a new set of bohemians, this time of more international
composition. Key members included the Polish novelist Stanislaw Przybyszewski,
the Swedish dramatist August
At the end of 1895 Munch returned to Christiania where he held an exhibition that was roundly condemned except by a few. On the basis of this show some considered him insane. While there, however, he met Ibsen, who was encouraging. Early in 1896 he went to Paris, where he spent most of the next two years and where his art began to receive a measure of recognition; his exhibits at the Salon des Independents were noticed favorably by some critics both in France and abroad, including Norway. He made new friends, including the poet Stephane Mallarme and the composer Frederick Delius.
It is one of the paradoxes of Munch's life that throughout much of it he seems to have been sociable and had dozens of friends, not to speak of many affairs with women, yet at the same time he was shy and retiring; loneliness is a persistent theme in his work. Much of his time in Pans was devoted to the manufacture of prints, which he produced in great quantity. He had already mastered etching, drypoint, aquatint and lithography.
Now, working in collaboration with the Paris printer Auguste Clot, he greatly expanded his repertoire of techniques, turning out woodcuts, in colors as well as monochrome, colored lithographs, relief prints, mezzotints, and prints produced by various mixtures of media. While a great many of these prints reproduce the compositions of his paintings, they are always independent works of art in which small changes, simplifications, new linear idioms and differences of color (often several variations in different impressions of the same print) introduce new shades small changes, simplifications, new linear idioms and differences of color (often several variations in different impressions of the same print) introduce new shades of emotional effect. Munch became a technical virtuoso of printmaking and is said never to have been happier than when engaged in this occupation. Braving the risks of indulging in amateur psychology, I shall offer the opinion that this activity helped him to preserve a degree of mental balance during his subsequent period alcoholism and personal trouble and probably postponed by years his eventual breakdown. As a painter, almost from the start he had tended to be sketchy and impulsive, too impatient with inessentials to go beyond the gist of an idea and undertake the careful, tedious work needed to 'finish' a picture. In some cases he would later rework it but leave it equally 'unfinished,' or make replicas or variations in which other aspects of the subject could be revealed. It was this slapdash execution as much as his unconventional subjects that offended critics and aroused doubts as to his sanity. Some types of prints could be sketched as freely as drawings or paintings, but others, notably woodcuts, demanded care, accuracy and patient labor. In producing them Munch willingly imposed upon himself a discipline absent in other departments of his life and work. Significantly, he made no wood cuts during the years immediately before his breakdown in 1908.
During the decade preceding that year, Munch's life progressed in two opposite directions: professionally he made a great advance, initially in fame and repute, ultimately also financially; privately he deteriorated in happiness and health. At first he lived chiefly in Christiania, later in Berlin and alsewhere in Germany, but essentially he remained 'of no fixed address'; the peripatetic existence continued. As obsessive as his travel was his 'exhibitionism'; between 1892 and 1909 he is said to have exhibited 108 times in group and one-man shows in various countries, above all Germany. Here his major breakthrough came at the Berlin Secession exhibition of 1902, where a fairly comprehensive version of the Frieze of Life was hung in a frieze-like sequence, the pictures divided into three iconographic groups dealing respectively with love, fear of life, and death. The show received much publicity and the critics were on the whole favorably impressed. Soon afterwards Munch became friendly with Albert Kollmann, a businessman, mystic and connoisseur who fostered the sale of his works and introduced him to one of his important patrons, the wealthy Lubeck oculist and collector of modern art, Dr Max Linde.
The doctor wrote a brief book in praise of Munch, who stayed several times at his beautiful house, painted portraits of the Linde family and executed a frieze to decorate the children's nursery . Other rich patrons followed, such as the Chemnitz stocking manufacturer Herbert Esche and the Swedish banker Ernest Thiel. For a rime in 1904 Munch lived in Weimar where he was befriended by Count Harry Kessler, director of the art academy. Of all these people and many others he painted portraits, and for several years practiced portrait painting as a lucrative occupation. He concluded contracts with the Berlin dealer Bruno Cassirer for the exclusive sale of his prints in Germany and with the Commeter gallery in Hamburg for paintings, though finding these agreements too restrictive he had them annulled a few years later.
Recognition also grew in Norway, if more slowly. The National Gallery in Christiania bought a few of his works, and Munch's friend Jens Thiis, an art historian, was a faithful advocate. A con siderable number of his paintings, including some of the finest, were acquired over the years by the discerning Norwegian industrialist Olaf Schou.
Munch's private life was a different story. In 1898 he began a serious affair with Tulla Larsen, the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a rich Norwegian wine merchant who herself had contacts with the Christiania Bohemia. Before long she importuned him to marry her. Greatly attracted, he was tempted to do so but ultimately refused, apparently for four reasons: firstly, he thought himself unsuited for marriage because he considered his heritage tainted by tuberculosis and madness (which he associated with his father as well as his sister Laura); secondly, in line with the misogyny of his Berlin friends he felt his individuality and artistic powers would be devoured by a wife and family; thirdly, he believed the financial arrangements stipulated by the wealthy Tulla would be humiliating to a still-poor artist; and fourthly, he was jealous of her former lovers. After they had traveled together on two trips to Italy and elsewhere, he left her. Meanwhile, beset by poor health and increasing addiction to alcohol, he spent time in a sanitorium in Gudbrandsdal, Norway.
Although by 1900 the affair was apparently in abbeyance, Tulla did not give up, and at Asgardstrand in the summer of 1902 with the help of mutual friends she staged a tricky confrontation in the heat of which, a revolver having been produced, Munch accidentally shot off part of a finger of his left hand. The experience proved traumatic. His feeling for Tulla turned to hatred, he quarreled with their mutual friends and began to acquire a persecution complex. In Paris the following year a sporadic love affair began with the young English concert violinist Eva Mudocci which, though providing agreeable interludes for several years, failed to allay his basic mental stress. His behavior during drinking bouts became violent and he was involved in several well-publicized brawls. The most serious of these occurred at Asgardstrand in 1905 when he had a fight with the younger painter Ludvig Karsten. As a result of this he stayed away from Norway for a few years. In vain attempts to cure his alcoholism he visited several German spas. Needing a substitute for Asgardstrand outside Norway, he spent two summers at Warnemunde, a small seaside resort on the Baltic coast, and here he seems to have found some peace. But in Copenhagen in 1908 his troubles returned in acute form; he suffered from hallucinations and felt he was going mad. With help of his old friend Goldstein he entered the fashionable clinic of the Copenhagen psychiatrist Dr Daniel Jacobson, where he remained for eight months.
Throughout his stay he kept busy with his art, producing among other works the portrait of Dr Jacobson and his own story Alpha and Omega, illustrated with lithographs. For whatever reason, whether it was the electricity and massage treatment we know he received, other therapy unknown, the kindness of the nurses, or Dr Jacobson's formidable personality, he emerged from the clinic cured. Never again did he drink to excess or suffer a mental collapse. His way of life, however, changed, as did the empha sis of his artistic interests. From now on he lived almost entirely in southern Norway, with only occasional visits abroad.
Until 1916 he moved about between properties he bought or rented in various places, but much of the time he lived at Kragere, a small coastal town facing an archipelago of wooded islands, where he would paint among the conifers. An increasing proportion of his pictures dealt on the one hand with scenes from working-class life and on the other from his own. He had already painted many self portraits; now they multiplied, revealing him in various moods and situations The two tendencies were not as opposed as might be thought, for the interest in workers did not only stem from radical political views, it also came from self identification as a 'worker of the world.' After his breakdown work became for him a therapy and artistic creation a substitute for the sexual procreation he had renounced.
During his months in the clinic and in the following year Munch finally received substantial recognition in his native country. Much to his gratification despite his republican sympathies, he was made a knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav; he had quite strong patriotic feelings. Successful exhibitions were held in Christiania and Bergen. The National Gallery, now directed by Jens Thus, bought a number of works and accepted the gift of a striking collection of Munch paintings from Olaf Schou. And a great collector of Norwegian art, the Bergenmerchant Rasmus Meyer, who had until recently shunned modernism, rapidly acquired an almost equally important group of his works. With his new interest in the working class, Munch renewed a concern he had long had for the dissemination of his art among the people by means of the mural decoration of public buildings. He hoped and believed, in fact, that the day of 'dealers' pictures,' small paintings intended to be hung on the walls of well-to-do middle-class homes, would soon be over, to be replaced by a public art available to all - a prediction since partially realized, if in a way very different from that Munch had visualized. As the Christiania municipality, to his chagrin, never favored him in the way it did his former friend with whom he had quarreled, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland - by taking over all his work and furnishing lavish facilities for exhibiting it permanently - the Frieze of Life was never a practical possibility. But in 1909 Munch entered and won a competition for the decoration of the new Aula, or assembly hall, of Christiania University. The scheme comprised three huge and eight smaller canvases, treating allegorically the theme of 'the powerful forces of eternity.'
He set to work immediately, but as there was still considerable conservative opposition to his art, final approval was not won until 1914, and then only through strenuous efforts by his friends, particularly Thiis. By then the work was largely finished. It was unveiled in 1916. Five years later another opportunity came with a proposal to decorate the dining rooms of the Freia chocolate factory. Only one part of the original idea was executed, a frieze of twelve paintings for the employees' canteen, completed in 1922. In the late 1920s, with a good deal of public encouragement, he worked on designs intended for the new Oslo City Hall, chiefly scenes of construction workers and snow diggers, but no commission ever came; by the time the building was begun in 1931 his eyesight was impaired and he was no longer strong enough to undertake so large a job.
In 1916 Munch had bought the large house and estate called Ekely, at Skeyen, close to Christiania, and here, except for brief interludes, he lived for the rest of his life, from time to time adding studios as the need arose. Without turning into a recluse, he withdrew to some extent from social contacts, guarding his privacy and in general discouraging visitors. But until he grew too old he still traveled abroad occasionally, especially in the early 1920s, and enjoyed visiting Oslo and attending exhibition openings. He appears to have become attached to some of his young female models, notably the beautiful Birgit Prestee . His habits were a trifle eccentric. While sometimes he would dress and behave with conventional formality, his surroundings can only be described as slovenly: only two or three rooms in the big house were put to domestic use, every other room was left dusty and untidy, with paintings, drawings and prints stacked or strewn helterskelter. He liked to paint outdoors, even in winter, and had an open lean-to studio built for the purpose. Sometimes he would leave paintings outdoors, exposed to wind, rain and snow, which accounts for the poor condition of many. This careless treatment was deliberate he did not believe in spoiling 'his children,' which was the way he thought of them; the practice seems to match his often apparently careless style of painting.
In 1930 a burst blood vessel in the right eye almost extinguished his vision. The disorder yielded to treatment but was never completely cured . From now on his activity diminished somewhat, though he continued to work to the end of his life. When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 Munch refused to associate with them or their Norwegian collaborators . He died of a heart attack in January 1944, soon after his 80th birthday, and thus did not live to see the country liberated. All the work remaining in his possession he bequeathed to the City of Oslo, where it is now mainly housed in the Munch Museum: 1008 paintings, 15,391 prints, 4447 drawings and watercolors, 6 sculptures and a large collection of manuscripts and letters. He had disliked selling his paintings and kept the bulk of them, both because they were 'his children' and in the hope, realized in 1963, that after his death the City of Oslo would establish a museum for them. By the sale of prints alone he had been able in later years to generate a large income, one reason why he produced so many.
Nowadays it is a commonplace to group Munch with the patriarchs of modernity, with Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Seurat, 'the last of the great post impressionists.' as one writer described him. To be sure, he influenced some younger artists, notably the German expressionists, but to stress his importance as a 'pioneer' of modernism is to misunderstand his art. Just as Raphael, an eclectic who borrowed from predecessors and contemporaries, brought the humanistic tradition of the Italian Renaissance to one of the peaks of its development, so Munch, also an eclectic, did something similar for the realistic-romantic tradition of the nineteenth century. For a long time he seemed to be turning his back on realism, whereas actually, on a deeper level, unlike some of the avant-garde contemporaries from whom he borrowed what he needed, he was not rejecting but extending it, adding rather than substituting a new dimension of subjectivity.
Next to his tragic and harrowing family circumstances, Munch was most fundamentally affected by his Norwegian background. With respect to painting his heritage was far richer than is generally realized. Beginning with the romantic landscapistJ C Dahl, Norway produced a succession of gifted painters still little known outside the country, some direct followers of Dali, others adherents of the more conventionalized romanticism of the Dusseldorf school. Two of the landscape painters, Peder Baike (1804-1887) and Lars Hertervig (1830-1902), who became paranoid, anticipated Munch's expressionist tendencies, while a third, the short-lived August Cappelen (1827-1852), produced haunting effects of melancholy and death in forest scenes, as did Munch over fifty years later. I use the term 'expressionism' in a broad sense, to mean the deliberate distortion of natural appearances for the sake of emotional effect by artists trained to reproduce them accurately. Turning to contemporary influences, that of the Christiania Bohemia was of decisive importance. Late in life Munch stated that it was this milieu that shaped his attitudes rather than his second bohemian experience in Berlin in the 1890s. The rebellious ideology of Jaeger and his followers was probably encourage more conventionalized romanticism of the Diisseldorf school. Two of the landscape painters, Peder Baike (1804-1887) and Lars Hertervig (1830-1902), who became paranoid, anticipated Munch's expressionist tendencies, while a third, the short-lived August Cappelen (1827-1852), produced haunting effects of melancholy and death in forest scenes, as did Munch over fifty years later. I use the term 'expressionism' in a broad sense, to mean the deliberate distortion of natural appearances for the sake of emotional effect by artists trained to reproduce them accurately. Turning to contemporary influences, that of the Christiania Bohemia was of decisive importance. Late in life Munch stated that it was this milieu that shaped his attitudes rather than his second bohemian experience in Berlin in the 1890s. The rebellious ideology of Jaeger and his followers was probably encouraged by the conservatism and bigotry of the Christiania 'people of condition,' as they were called, consisting largely of professionals, merchants and government officials (manufacturing was still of minor importance; as late as 1900 only 3% of the Norwegian population worked in factories). The Christiania bourgeoisie was small, narrow-minded, provincial, and in religion somewhat swayed by the puritanism and fundamentalism of the Haugean movement within the established Lutheran church. Such a society bears no comparison to the enormously larger, more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan bourgeoisie of Paris or London.
Very likely it was this extreme narrowness that provoked the equally extreme reaction represented by Jaeger's revolutionary views on political, social, religious, moral and artistic questions. Munch was all the more aware of the antithesis because it was personified by people to whom he felt close, his father on the one hand and Jaeger ('I loved him but I also hated him') on the other. It may be a source of the concern with dualities that came to dominate the content of his art: objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, love and hate, individual and group, egotism and concern for humanity, bourgeois and proletarian, the attraction versus the fear of women, and their generative versus their destructive powers.
Of equal relevance to Munch's practice was the artistic
doctrine of so-called naturalism - more accurately a species of individualistic
realism - preached by Jaeger and Munch's de facto teacher, Christian Krohg.
According to them the artist should represent only what he has himself
experienced. His art should therefore be autobiographical. It was equally
his duty to ensure that it should be intelligible, so that the emotions
which activated it could be re-experienced by a wide audience who would
profit from his insights. Munch absorbed these ideas and on the whole
adhered to them through his career. He had a bardic conception of the
duty of the great artist (in which category he included himself) to edify
society, his teaching at this time to replace obsolete religion. And only
by exploring his own psyche could he help others to explore theirs. He
was aware that many people would find it difficult to understand some
of his didactic pictures but believed that if assembled in the form of
a frieze their thematic relationship would be recognized,
In fact the realist - naturalist doctrine had already planted the seeds of a new subjectivity. Since the reason for the artist's painting what he had himself witnessed was to be able to covey to others the feelings he had experienced during his act of re-creation, it behooved him to choose subjects that had moved him in the first place. Jaeger stated that his bohemian novel had been written with his 'heart's blood,' a metaphor Munch later repeated with variations. To achieve such intensity it was necessary to prune irrelevant and distracting details, and to impose a subjective unity on the relevant components retained; the objective world as interpreted by many artists of the mid-century had tended to become an accumulation of disunited particulars, perhaps partly as a response to chaotic economic growth and its attendant social fragmentation.
Krohg, on whose style of the 1880s Munch's early work was to some extent based, had lived in Paris in 1881-82 and been affected by Jules Bastien-Lepage, Manet and the impressionists. They contributed to several of his distinctive qualities: bold, confident brushwork, entailing a slurring of detail and some uncertainty of structure, a beautiful sense of fairly high-keyed color, and a concern for humanity (he rarely painted landscapes). Frequently he painted subjects about which he felt strongly but which usually did not affect him personally, to wit the lives of the poor and on occasion their sufferings due to the injustices of society.
Munch sympathized with Krohg's radical views. With his more introverted character and the tragedies of his home life, however, he was driven to deal mainly with sufferings of a more mental nature, both his own and those of others. The expression of these demanded a more subjective treatment, an internal realism to complement the external, which first appears unmistakably in The Sick Child.
The most obvious catalyst in this change was his direct exposure to the art of Manet in 1885, which gave him a licence for looser, freer handling and a capriciousness of structure, and which released his inborn tendency toward an apparently casual, even slipshod treatment of anything but essentials. Less obvious but also important was the effect of his slightly older contemporary Hans Heyerdahl, a gifted Norwegian painter trained in the Munich school of realism, whose art Munch admired even many years later after they had quarreled. Besides influencing him in tangible matters of theme, composition and handling, Heyerdahl at his best pointed the way to a deeper insight into human personality than either Krohg or Manet could provide for Munch.
Benefit though he did from the various artistic movements he encountered in Paris after arriving in 1889, Munch retained his independence, using only what he could get from these new styles that would further his own aims. The impressionists were the first to attract him. By attempting to paint momentary sensations of sight instead of objective facts they took a decisive step in the direction of subjectivity. Their researches into the effects of light on color produced more saturated color patterns and more vivid contrasts. Their endeavor to record instantaneous perception obliterated the distinction between sketch and finished picture. These achievments were valuable for Munch, but there were other aspects that could not have appealed to him. Discarding traditional chiaroscuro in favor of color contrast precluded forceful effects of relief. Subjectivity was procured at the expense of objectivity. Impressionism did not unify the scene portrayed but merely replaced a multitude of naturalistic details with a multitude of dabs of color which the mind of the observer could then translate into such details. Its insistence on ocular perception alone devalued subject matter, resulting in the avoidence of any narrative or drama, and of any composition other than the apparently accidental, since deliberate composition would emphasize the cognitive value of what was painted. The logical end was anti humanistic, because it would involve absorbing the human figure along with other objects into purely visual patterns of colored light. Besides, matching their bright colors and avoidance of drama the impressionists largely confined themselves to painting the sunny side of life, including the leisure life of the Parisian bourgeoisie, hardly the sort of topic to attract Munch.
No doubt for these reasons he quickly abandoned impressionism. For a short time he flirted with the pointillism or neoimpressionism of Seurat and his followers, which disciplined the free brush strokes of impressionism into a cluster of colored spots of more or less uniform size systematically arranged according to theories of color contrast and combination. Munch painted a few excellent pictures related to this style but never adhered to it rigorously and soon dropped it, though a trace of its influence occasionally re-appears in later years. Pointillism imposed a clearer structure than impressionism but was even more concerned with the analysis of visual perception and (despite Seurat's late experiments with the expressive values of rising and falling lines, and colors) almost equally hostile to the expression of strong emotions. And it involved too mechanical an operation to suit Munch's temperament.
What did have a lasting effect on him was the symbolist movement, particularly that variety of it sometimes called synthetism, initiated by Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard and practiced by the Pont-Aven painters and the group called the Nabis. Symbolism was originally a literary movement, associated with such poets as Munch's friend Mallarme. In art it meant, rather vaguely, the portrayal of scenes of such a type and in such a way that they would imply more general meanings underlying external appearances. Synthetism dealt more specifically with the representation of scenes whose components were governed by memory or imagination instead of immediate observation; in other words, mental instead of ocular images, conceptions in- stead of perceptions. With the synthetist painters, as with the primitive art they admired and were influenced by, this tended to produce simplified forms and the reduction of the scene to a static flat pattern; our mind's eye tends to forget details, to see things fixed rather than in motion, and in the flat rather than in the round. A two-dimensional pattern requires relatively unmodulated areas of color enclosed and separated by lines, which may be either negative, that is to say formed naturally by the juxtaposition of different color or light values, or posi- tive, which means actual drawn lines added to emphasize the separation of the color areas. The synthetists used both types but favored the positive, which contributes to greater unity, emphasizes the conceptual image, and is in any case much easier (to produce a strong color pattern with negative lines alone requires the skill of a John Sell Cotman). Their choice of colors was determined not by naturalistic fidelity but by the emotional charge added to the subject by memory and association. In his work of the 1890s Munch utilized this new subjectivity, unity and freedom of color, although his color schemes were relatively subdued to suit the somber themes of death and suffering that had already gripped him and were now reinforced by the pessimism of the bohemian circle in Berlin, who also encouraged him to dwell on sex relations and his complicated attitude to women.
Symbolism, however, was opposed to Munch's early commitment to Norwegian naturalism which, for all his avowals to the contrary, never wholly deserted him. Out of the conflict between these disparate modes he was able to endow his allegorical constructions, based on his own experience, with a vitality usually lacking in synthetist art. A clue to how this was achieved can be found in his posing of the human figure. He often favors frontal or profile positions. These views, normal in primitive art, harmonize with flat pattern construction because they suggest planes parallel to the plane of the pattern, whereas intermediate views do not. But for Munch their significance was much greater. More than other views, they provide unambiguous, readily recognizable contours which detach the figure from its environment, isolating it as a discrete image and thus expressing human loneliness, one of his perennial themes. He rarely represents direct intercourse except by physical contact, in which case the pluralism of figures contracts to a single image.
In other respects Munch tends to use the profile differently from the frontal position. The profile figure suggests no possibility of movement outside the plane of the pattern of which it forms a fixed part, whereas figures in frontal or dorsal positions, while not violating the pattern, can be shown suggesting movement or actually moving into or out of three dimensional depth. Because it implies a change of distance from the observer such movement also evokes the passage of time. Even without implied movement distance in space in a picture can suggest distance in time, and thus a memory of the past. In practice Munch sometimes employed profile figures in the foreground to denote states of passive, timeless contemplation, the memory of the past which is the object of such contemplation sometimes being shown in the background . Frontal figures, on the other hand, are wedded to space and time and, especially if moving, can imply an active physical or emotional reaction to the memory image in the background . Both types allow us to be privy to the imaginative picture in the protagonist's mind. Not all of Munch's symbolic pictures belong to these categories; his huge output was too varied to be tied up in such neat formulas. But he rarely fails to animate his symbolic patterns with the dimensions of the real world. When he does confine himself to simple flat pattern, it may be assumed that the mental image is that of the spectator him or herself.
Another important aspect of Munch's mature work of the 1890s is his treatment of line especially the outline of the human figure. Like Gauguin and his school he often used positive lines, but handled them in a freer manner. They are often fragmentary and usually irregular, arbitrarily changing in thickness, consistency and color. Occasionally they widen into streams of color, so that the distinction between the linear and the painterly never conspicuous, disappears entirely Sometimes Munch detaches the positive contour from the object it encloses, thus separating the form from the material substance of what is depicted, and sometimes he suggests flexibility and movement by doubling or further increasing the outlines surrounding figures If spread out widely, as is sometimes the case, such multiple contours create a kind of visible linear aura emanating from the figure. The effect of these liberties is to integrate the objective and the subjective and to create a dream-like mobility that seems to indicate firstly, that images, however discrete, interact with their environment, and secondly, that just as perception depends on changing conditions of light, as Monet was pointing out with his poplars and haystacks, so conception depends on changing conditions of mood and bias: 'The point is that one sees different things with different eyes .... The way in which one sees depends also on one's mood,' wrote Munch himself.
Already in the early 1890s some of Munch's simplified outlines began to take on the flowing continuity of art nouveau, or Jugendstil as it is often called in Germany and Scandinavia. This new style aimed at unifying the fractured external world by subjecting it to a curvilinear fusion whereby its disparate elements could be absorbed into a homogeneous totality. For many years, well into the beginning of the twentieth century, its influence appears in his work. Doubtless its subjective continuity and unity appealed to him; perhaps he was also affected by the fact that at a time when he was much preoccupied with the power and fate of women the graceful curves of art nouveau seemed to echo the female body, feminizing nature. But he never wholly succumbed to the style. Firstly, it involved a flat, uniform linearity at odds with his painterly leaning and naturalistic concern for three-dimensional space. Secondly, Munch was above all a humanist, and the total absorption of humanity into a continuum meant, just as in the case of impressionism, the dissolution of individual human personality; in The Scream he seems to depict the struggle against Munch was above all a humanist, and the total absorption of humanity into a continuum meant, just as in the case of impressionism, the dissolution of individual human personality; in The Scream he seems to depict the struggle against this fate. Many other artists of the period, while developing anti-naturalistic styles, were loath to apply them to the human figure, which they continued to treat more naturalistically than the rest of nature. Thirdly, the scope of the art nouveau ideal of unity extended to a total environment, not merely to pictures hanging on walls. It was therefore essentially a decorative art applied to the tools of practical life, its content adapted to the form and utility of the objects it decorated, whether buildings, furniture, vases, books or other domestic objects. Pictures enclosed by frames were in fact subversive of this aim, as they created independent illusory spaces with self-sufficient contents unrelated to material utility or external decorative schemes. The Belgian Henri van de Velde, like several other typical art nouveau artists, started as a painter but, evidently realizing this, gave it up and became a designer and architect.
He was a socialist, and influenced by William Morris's advocacy of the development of arts and crafts to beautify people's daily lives. But for Munch, though he sympathized with the left, it was impossible to follow this path; he disliked all crafts, his genius was for conveying personal moods and messages by purely pictorial means. Even book illustration, a typical art nouveau art he occasionally dabbled in, was really foreign to his temperament. Gradually art nouveau forms disappeared from his work and his leftist feelings found other outlets.
This was part of a complex of changes that began to appear in Munch's art around 1900. It has been said that his breakdown in 1908 was a turning point; others have thought the shooting incident in 1902 marked the switch. But I think the process was gradual, largely independent of these traumas and clearly evident in its first stages before either of them. In any case his style in these later years is too varied and inconsistent to be discussed other than in respect to general tendencies.
Probably the most fundamental change was the gradual breakdown of the conceptual element with its stress on unity of surface pattern. Art-nouveau linear continuity is fractured into a loosely joined collection of particulars. In a way this represents a return to naturalism, or rather the sort of naturalistic expressionism that first appeared in The Sick Child. For Munch still distorts, simplifies and selects from nature, in fact on the whole with greater freedom than before. His art is still imaginative, but now more 'expressionist' than 'synthetist,' based more on the distortion of sophisticated perception than primitive conceptualism.
Another development is the use of increasingly brilliant colors. This has been attributed to a more extroverted attitude on the artist's part, a disposition to turn away from his own unhappiness and fears and deal more objectively and optimistically with humanity at large. The effect of Matisse and other fauve painters has also been mentioned. Neither explanation is altogether satisfactory. Munch's heightened color schemes appeared before the fauve painters created their style, and he may have influenced them before they did him. As for optimism, it is true that bright colors expel the gloom of his earlier work, and that his practical mural schemes (as opposed to the Frieze of Life, which never approached a practical possibility) present a more cheerful view of life. Certainly there was a change of attitude, a new understanding that his personal sufferings exemplified only one aspect of life. But when he is not uttering specifically public pronouncements his underlying pessimism often creeps in. Soon after Hitler came to power in 1933 he voiced his conviction that war would come and his doubt that war among men could ever be eradicated. 'Mankind is a depraved race,' he remarked. He had a fatalistic belief in man's helplessness to control his destiny,which was determined by forces he was incapable of understanding. To the end of his life, hardly a smile brightens the increasingly frequent self-portraits. There could, however, also be another quite different reason for the bright colors of the later work, namely that they contribute to increased articulation; the greater range of color values and intensities made it possible to introduce more glittery contrasts destructive of surface unity.
Unlike Gauguin and other modernists, including his own followers among the German expressionists, who were attracted to and derived forms from the conceptual art of primitive cultures, Munch, never a formalist, was unresponsive to such influences: 'he need not go to Tahiti to perceive and experience the primitive in human nature. He carries his own Tahiti within him.. .!' wrote the critic Franz Servaes, co-author of the first book on Munch. When the conceptual image in his art evaporated it left a residue of fragmented nature which he seems to have related to what he took to be the comprehension of children and unsophisticated people. Without imitating any kind of conceptual art he 'primitivized' forms by means of drastic simplification. At the same time, around the turn of the century, he began to take a new interest in children as subject-matter for his pictures.
Beyond doubt, in his later years Munch was intent upon reaching a wide audience, children in the case of the Linde nursery , students in that of the University Aula, 'simple' working people in that of the Freia factory canteen. His enthusiasm for a public art derived from his left-wing standpoint. He took little interest in practical politics but the imprint of Jaeger's powerful personality, and hence his anarchist views, never left him. Munch thought that the rich robbed the poor (page 18, below), that the day of the bourgeoisie was due to end, and that its place as the dominant element in society would be taken over by the working class. Art was a necessary ingredient in these people's lives, to be brought to them chiefly through the decoration of public buildings. As a result, the subject matter of his art tended to shift in the direction of its intended 'consumers'; from the beginning of the century until the early 1930s, when it became clear he would never achieve his ambition to decorate the new Oslo Town Hall, he painted, drew and made prints of, a great quantity of scenes of working-class life.
It is one of the many contradictions in Munch's art that conscious though he was during the later years of a social function for art, his practice became more egocentric than ever. The basis was now naturalistic, but whatever the scene portrayed, he treated it with the utmost liberty, neglecting anything not of interest and confining himself to simplified, sketchy, loosely contoured, even ragged renderings in brilliant colors of what he evidently considered essentials. His own act of creation meant everything, it would seem, and if a picture were damaged by being trod on or exposed to the weather, this did no harm; on the contrary, it could allow his creative act to be seen in a new light, which might even improve it. Following the naturalistic doctrine of his youth, subjects remained substantially autobiographical, even more obviously so after settling down to the quieter, more secluded life at Ekely. To some extent he lived on memories, and among the most important of these were his own early pictures, of some of which he continually made replicas, especially of favorites he had reluctantly lost by selling. These replicas are not copies in an ordinary sense, they are painted as though distantly remembered incidents in his life, varied, loosened, simplified, and sometimes vulgarized by the shrill colors of his later years. Now and then he would contrive new imaginative reconstructions of other incidents of his past life that had left their mark on him. As I previously indicated, even the numerous scenes of workers had a subjective tinge, reflecting his own obsession with work as the chief consolation of life.
It is noteworthy that these scenes nearly always show laborers either at work or on their way to or, more usually, from it, rarely at leisure and never in their homes; home life meant little to Munch. Another significant fact is that except in earlier years he rarely depicted female workers; the emphasis is on masculinity. A similar quality appears in the pictures of male bathers and in many of the portraits of his male friends and patrons, mostly self confident individuals, that he painted in the first decade of the new century. In all probability the trend represents a reaction, perhaps triggered by the Tulla Larsen episode, against the images of the weak male and the dominant femme fatale that pervade his work of the 1890s.
To behold Munch's late work is in many cases to be confronted with anarchy - not in the sense of the artistic result, which is often superb, but of the selection and interpretation of the data depicted. He was too much of a realist and a humanist to embrace any of the dissections and systematizations twentieth century modernists have imposed upon or substituted for the external world. He sees the world subjectively but without trying to repudiate it, and what he sees seems to have lapsed into a chaos in which humanity and nature just manage to preserve their identities. We can only speculate as to the source of this anarchy. It seems unlikely that it could have any connection with the philosophical and political anarchism he imbibed in his youth yet one of the very last works he ever execured was a new portrait lithograph of the long-dead Hans Jaeger. Possibly it reflects inner turmoil at the approach of death; or, more likely, a sense of social disintegration in the outer world. Whatever the cause, brilliant colors prevent the effect from being unduly pessimistic. And there may be significance in the fact that in the latest of the proletarian pictures the dominant theme is building - perhaps symbolizing the construction of a new world.
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