“For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.”
– Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch was born in a farmhouse in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway, in 1863. He lived to be 80, dying in 1944. His father, Christian, was son of a priest and became a doctor and medical officer to the army. In 1861, he had married Laura, a woman half his age. Edvard had an elder sister, Johanne Sophie, and three younger siblings: Peter Andreas, Inger Marie, and Laura Catherine, who was artistically talented and probably encouraged Edvard. (Wikipedia)
You have no doubt heard of the concept of “typecasting” as in the acting arts. Clint Eastwood was typecast as the ultimate macho tough guy, dispensing justice as he saw fit, e.g., characters Dirty Harry and Josie Wales.
Lee Van Cleef, on the other hand, was almost always cast as a Western villain.
Edvard Munch has also been typecast in art history. Not a person who knows anything about Munch does not associate him with one painting: The Scream.
The Scream was painted 51 years before his death, but Munch was typecast for his “child-like” style for the next half century. The Scream appears as if it could have been done with crayons by a sixth-grade art student. If so, it would probably have vanished from Mom’s refrigerator door – as soon and as discretely as possible.
Yet, Edvard Munch saw the scream as meeting his stated artistic goal of “The study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.” Although everyone quickly connects The Scream and Munch, few know how the painting came to be. Munch made it quite clear: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
Most revealing of Munch’s ‘soul’ was in his own words as he described the personal anguish behind the painting: “For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.” That, indeed, is a sad statement for a 29-year-old man to make, isn’t it?
The family moved to Christiania (renamed Kristiania in 1877, and now Oslo) in 1864 when Christian Munch was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. Edvard’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch’s favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. After their mother’s death, the Munch siblings were raised by their father and by their aunt Karen. Often ill for much of the winters and kept out of school, Edvard would draw to keep himself occupied. He was tutored by his school mates and his aunt. Christian Munch also instructed his son in history and literature and entertained the children with vivid ghost-stories and the tales of American writer Edgar Allen Poe. [Uh, Poe, for bedtime stories?? That would explain a few things, mighten it?]
As Edvard remembered it, Christian’s positive behavior toward his children was overshadowed by his morbid pietism. Munch wrote, “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
Christian reprimanded his children by telling them that their mother was looking down from heaven and grieving over their misbehavior. The oppressive religious milieu, Edvard’s poor health, and the vivid ghost stories helped inspire his macabre visions and nightmares; the boy felt that death was constantly advancing on him. One of Munch’s younger sisters, Laura, was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings, only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch would later write, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption (TB) and insanity.”
Edvard’s father, Christian Munch, was a doctor in the service, but the military pay was very low, and his attempts to develop a private side practice failed, keeping his family in genteel, yet perennial poverty. They often moved from one cheap flat to another. Munch’s early drawings and watercolors depicted these plain interiors, and the individual objects, such as medicine bottles and drawing implements, plus some landscapes.
By his teens, art dominated Munch’s interests. At thirteen, Munch had his first exposure to other artists at the newly formed Art Association, where he admired the work of the Norwegian landscape school. He returned to copy the paintings, and soon he began to paint in oils.
Little did you know about Munch…
The theory of divine connection existing on the cusp of consciousness interested Edvard Munch, and he was prepared to experiment with it in certain fields of pre-creation: the extent to which he would drink or starve himself to raise his consciousness into a hyper-sensitive state before addressing the canvas.
“Painting picture by picture, I followed the impressions my eye took in at
heightened moments. I painted only memories, adding nothing, no details
that I did not see. Hence the simplicity of the paintings, their emptiness.”
– Edvard Munch
Edvard was not the first artist to submit himself to planned austerity or excess as a means of reaching a higher creative plane. Many artists have sincerely utilized drugs, hallucinogens, alcohol, deprivation. Writer, James Mitchener, got up to write at 3AM daily and said, “If you are not writing by 4AM you are not much of a writer.” (But he also said, several times, “I am not a good writer, but I am a very good re-writer.” Maybe if he slept a little more, he wouldn’t need to do so much re-writing? lol)
In my early days of true artistic endeavor, after creative writing, was in ceramics. One of the top contenders for creative arts blockage is the analytical mind. You can think yourself right out of a unique and wonderful creation. My mind in ceramics was one of my enemies. You need an analytical mind when doing glaze formulas. They are quite cerebral and exacting. But creating from clay is a different matter. If you do not want your work to look like a perfect piece from Walmart’s Garden Center ceramic pot section, you must be able to suspend the analytical, social-conscious mind. You must learn to suspend rationality and worry about “What will people think or say about this piece if I do it the way I really want to do it?” You literally have to go into it with this attitude: “I don’t give a fuck what people think about this piece. I am doing it for me!”
But to get to that stage, being a science and psychology major and an art minor, I found a way to turn off my critical mind-scripts that no doubt originated from others who rebuked new things as “weird” rather than “fascinating.” I made my hands work faster than my mind. I think I could have done it with cannabis, but one did not find much pot in a small mid-western college in the 60’s. So, I got my slabs of clay prepared very scientifically, right amount of clay and water, right amount of mixing and kneading the clay, then grab your tools, turn off your mind and, Ready? Go!
Munch used self-deprivation of food, and unusual avenue but probably an easy one for someone like Munch who lived hand to mouth usually anyway. And alcohol? The list of alcohol induced art is long indeed, Pollock being a well-known example we featured not long ago. Earnest Hemmingway, in the writing arts, was a chronic user of alcohol while writing.
Around 1900, his style was still prevalent even in one of my Munch favorites, Madonna.
Munch produced more than 1,000 paintings and 4,000 drawings throughout this career. It’s an impressive output—but that number is dwarfed by the nearly 15,400 prints contained in his oeuvre. Munch created his first etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs in the mid-1890s. If prints were always a way to mass-produce art, Munch innovated by leaving a trace of his own hand. His flowing, imprecise line imbued the flat form with deep expression and feeling. His work inspired the German Expressionists that succeeded him, including Erich Heckel and
Emil Nolde, to use printing for their own symbolic, psychological work.
Although appearing wacky, wild and weird, Edvard was none of those. He suffered yes, did weird things to heighten his senses, and appeared wild, due to his depair, but he was, instead a man who lived in much despair his whole life with roots in austere poverty and a dreary upbringing he could never shake.