Sunday, July 26, 2020

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Edvard Munch: an Inner Life

Edvard Munch: an Inner Life

By Oystein Ustvedt  
Thames & Hudson/223 pages/$19.95

Reviewed by Ed Voves

According to a detailed survey of his prolific career, Edvard Munch painted 1,789 paintings. To this staggering tally must be added thousands of sketches, prints and photos. Munch lived a long time, 1863-1944, and worked constantly, exploring the world and his reactions to it with raw-edged intensity.

Despite the huge volume of his work, Munch is defined by a single painting. The Scream is one of the most instantly recognizable art works in the world. Such is the fame and notoriety of The Scream, that many of Munch's other paintings linger in a state of limbo, like human souls in Purgatory, neither damned nor blessed.

The shadow cast by The Scream continues to defy the efforts of art curators to achieve a balanced and nuanced appraisal of Munch's oeuvre. A perceptive biography by the Norwegian art scholar, Oystein Ustvedt, recently published by Thames and Hudson, may free Munch from the thrall of The Scream - or at least restart a dialogue on the vast range of his creative achievement.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893 © National Museum, Norway

The Scream was created in 1893, a key moment in Munch's life and career. Given what occurred that year, it would be understandable that Munch painted a raving, unhinged man with a blood red sky in the background. Munch was invited to exhibit his paintings at the gallery of the Artist's Association in Berlin. After only five days of shock and outrage, the exhibition was cancelled.

The anger occasioned by the closing of the Munch exhibition led to a protest movement of younger German artists in support of Munch. They eventually cut ties with the official art establishment in Germany, creating the Berlin Secession in 1898. "Secession" was in the air, as Gustav Klimt, Kolomon Moser and other Austrian artists had declared the Vienna Secession in 1897.
The fury in the art world did not entirely revolve around Munch and, indeed, he was not overly affected by the cancellation of his exhibition. Writing to his Aunt Karen, Munch consoled her with an early version of "there's no such thing as bad advertising." He was only sorry that he had not hurried back to Norway to try and sell his paintings while they were still a big news item.

Ustvedt follows Munch's lead by not allowing himself to become obsessed with the events of 1892-93 when Munch created the first versions of his now iconic painting. Instead, Ustvedt focuses on an earlier work, The Sick Child, dating to 1885, a signature work to which Munch would return at least five times in oil on canvas and in numerous print versions.

Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1885 © National Museum, Norway 

The Sick Child could, with ample justification, have been entitled, The Dying Child. This heartrending work was based on Munch's traumatic observance of the death from tuberculosis of his sister, Joanne Sophie (1862-1877). Munch was fourteen at the time of his sister's demise and the experience brought back haunting memories of his mother's death from tuberculosis, when he had been a child of five. 

Children during the 1800's were no strangers to death but Munch seems to have taken the loss of Sophie especially hard. He painted his pain into The Sick Child, as the roughly-streaked brush strokes proclaim. Art critics condemned this early work for its crude appearance, missing the point that its lack of finish testified to the "unfinished" life span of the dying girl.
Four years later, Munch painted a much larger and more sophisticated version of this scene with the ironic title, Spring. Instead of the harsh black shroud over the window, sunlight pours through diaphanous white curtains. Spring is in the air but the invalid girl, red-haired like The Sick Child, is clearly dying. Munch made a major positional change, with the girl's pallid face no longer in profile. She turns from the light to directly face the viewer.
This is the face of Death looking toward us. Edvard Munch knew that face all too well.

Of great significance, Munch would repeat the shift of facial positions from profile to frontal, in other of his major works. In fact, the first version of The Scream, entitled Despair, painted in 1892, shows a despondent man in profile on the railed bridge with a blood red sky overhead, both of which would reoccur a year later. 

In the various versions of The Scream, the protagonist looks directly toward us or rather "through" us, as he lets out his primal shriek. We are, thus, directly incorporated into this psychic-drama, which may account for some of the resonance of this alarming work of art.

Munch also frequently repeated poses of his protagonists. His striking full-length portrait of his sister Inger (1868-1952) reappears in another major work, hearkening back to The Dying Child and Spring.

Edvard Munch, Death in the Sick Room, 1893 
© National Museum, Norway 

Entitled Death in the Sickroom, it was painted in Munch's watershed year, 1893. Inger, second from left, stands back-to-back with Munch who, significantly, is the only person in the room looking directly at Sophie, propped-up in a chair to aid her breathing. By steeling himself to look at his dying sister, while others avert their gaze, Munch affirms the artist's duty to confront reality, to "paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love."

By painting dying people who "breathe and feel and suffer and love," Munch placed a heavy emotional burden upon himself, adding to the lingering pain of his mother's early death. 

The impact which this courageous confrontation with death had on Munch's life is pivotal. His repeated failure to establish a loving relationship leading to marriage is likely to have been influenced by a fear of rejection, of losing a loved one a second or third time, which is exactly what did transpire.

Edvard Munch, Summer Night. Inger on the Beach, 1889 
Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen Art Museum © KODE Museums

Munch's relationships with women span a wide emotional range from healthy to obsessive. Munch loved his Aunt Karen, who raised him, and was close to his sister Inger. A raven-haired beauty, strikingly like their mother, Inger often posed for Munch in the first two decades of his long career. She was a gifted photographer and, like Munch, never married.

As Munch's fame grew and the market value of his paintings soared during the late 1890's, a seeming love match appeared in his life. Munch became infatuated with Milly Thaulow (1860-1937) but she rejected him. Munch was devastated and the hurt was compounded a few years later when a second relationship went terribly wrong. In 1902, an escalating quarrel between Munch and his new romantic interest, Tulla Larsen (1869-1942), ended in a shooting incident. Munch was hit in his painting hand but recovered without serious effect.

Ustvedt does not delve too deeply into the details of Munch's failed romances. He does, however, analyse the way Munch treated women in his art. On the one hand, Munch created disturbing erotic works of art like his controversial Madonnas. Yet, Ustvedt also shows that Munch used his art to skewer misogynistic attitudes, especially the sexual manipulation of young women.

Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1895-1902 © Munch Museum, Oslo

If Munch was a troubled, conflicted man, he none-the-less was sincere in his attempts to examine his own conscience and soul. During the years following  turn of the twentieth century - years when he spent considerable periods undergoing psychiatric care - Munch confronted the ying/yang relationship of genius and madness. Once again, he used his art as a vehicle for this soul-searching endeavor, even creating diagrams to visualize his meditations. Years later, Munch wrote:

Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I tried to dissect souls. He was forced to note his findings in mirror writing, as at that time it was forbidden to dissect human bodies. Now it seems that the dissection of phenomena pertaining to the soul is viewed similarly as disgusting, frivolous and indecent.

Munch persevered, finding solace in a return to Norway from Germany just before the outbreak of World War I. As Europe went mad, Munch regained his sanity.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1910-11 © Munch Museum, Oslo

Munch's career trajectory is admirably charted in this insightful biography. Munch evolved from a Realist painter in his early youth to a Post-Impressionist-turned-Symbolist in the 1890's to a master of Expressionism after 1900. Later in life, Munch even pioneered an approach to "temporality" by exposing paintings to the elements in an open-air studio. This may have been less a deliberate strategy than an aging artist's involuntary decision to let time and nature have the final say. But his late work is impressive all the same.

Although Ustvedt's biography of Munch is not a volume in the Thames and Hudson World of Art Library, it certainly matches the high standard of this acclaimed series. Images and text are brilliantly juxtaposed. An additional accolade deserves to be paid to Alison McCullough whose English translation of Ustvedt's text maintains the high caliber of the original.

Edvard Munch Sitting in the Winter Studio at Ekely, 1938 
© Munch Museum, Oslo

Perhaps the most salient point in judging Ustvedt's biography of Munch concerns its subtitle, "an inner life."  Great art need not be determined by the way that an artist deals with his or her inner turmoil. Yet, for Edvard Munch that was certainly true. Ustvedt's final verdict about the artist needs to be underscored: Munch "attempted to paint moods and emotions, allowing them to dominated his works."

The fourteen year-old boy who refused to avert his eyes in Death in the Sickroom kept looking at life and death for as long as he lived. Edvard Munch never blinked.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. 
Images courtesy of the Munch Museum, Norway and the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway, photos by Børre Høstland 

Introductory Image: 
Cover art for Edvard Munch: an inner Life. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson Publishers

Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863-1944) The Scream, 1893. Tempera and crayon on board: 91 x 73.5 cm. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. © National Museum, Norway

Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) The Sick Child, 1885-86. Oil on canvas: 120 x 118.5 cm. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. © National Museum, Norway

Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) Death in the Sick Room, 1893. Tempera and crayon on board: 152.5 x 169.5 cm. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway. © National Museum, Norway

Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) Summer Night. Inger on the Beach, 1889. Oil on canvas: 126.5 x 161.5 cm. Photo by Dag Fosse. Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen Art Museum. © KODE Museums and Composer Homes.

Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) Madonna,1895-1902. Lithograph: 60.5 x 44.7 cm. Munch Museum, Oslo. © Munch Museum

Edvard Munch (Norwegian,1863-1944) The Sun,1910-11. Oil on canvas: 162 x 205 cm. Munch Museum, Oslo. © Munch Museum

Edvard Munch Sitting in the Winter Studio at Ekely, 1938. Photo by Ragnvald Vaering. Munch Museum archives, M.B. 1262. © Munch Museum, Oslo

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