Edvard Munch


1863, Loten, Norway
1944, Oslo, Norway

Black and white portrait of an elderly Caucasian man wearing a suit surrounded by paintings, Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, Edvard Munch at Ekely, 1938; photo: courtesy the Munch Museum, Oslo


Originally published in Oxford Art Online.
by Reinhold Heller

Norwegian painter, printmaker and draughtsman. Especially concerned with the expressive representation of emotions and personal relationships, he was associated with the international development of Symbolism during the 1890s and recognized as a precursor of Expressionism, particularly in his paintings and woodcuts.

Childhood and early work, to 1884

Edvard Munch was born the second of five children to Laura Cathrine Bjølstad and Dr. Christian Munch, a military doctor. Living in tenement houses in the workers’ suburbs of Christiania (which became Kristiania in 1877 and Oslo in 1925), the family, descended from Norway’s cultural aristocracy but economically impoverished, was doubly alienated. Unable to move freely among the educated and social élite, they experienced at the same time the illnesses impacted most severely on the Scandinavian urban working class: tuberculosis and bronchitis. Weakened after the birth of her fifth child, Edvard Munch’s mother succumbed to tuberculosis in 1868, as did her oldest child, Sophie, in 1877. After the deaths of his wife and daughter, his son later maintained, Dr. Munch suffered periodic fits of deep depression and violent temper, accompanied by fanatical visions of his own and his surviving children’s eternal damnation in hell. An extreme Christian fundamentalist, Dr. Munch saw the bouts of severe, life-threatening bronchitis and tuberculosis suffered by Edvard and the other children as God’s ‘punishing illnesses’ to which the sole response could be penitential prayer and remorseful submission. The constant experience of illness, hallucination, death and rejection, but also of determined and desperate resistance, provided the fundamental shape of Edvard Munch’s character: ‘I was born dying’, he recalled shortly after his 70th birthday, ‘Sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.’ This dramatic self-representation also gives retrospective shape to his art and grants it an overarching unity fusing and denying the disparity of efforts marking his long career as an artist.

After briefly studying engineering in accordance with his father’s wishes, Munch entered the Tegneskole in Kristiania in 1881, studying life drawing under the sculptor Julius Middelthun. In 1882 he rented a studio with six other artists, supervised by the painter Christian Krohg, and in autumn 1883 he attended Frits Thaulow’s Friluftsakademi at Modum. Munch soon added to his academic training experiments in a semi-Impressionist Naturalism, as advocated by Krohg and Thaulow in their efforts to create a national landscape style based on plein-air painting and influenced by the contemporary art of Paris. As practiced by them, and by Munch in his paintings Young Servant Girl Kindling a Stove (1883; Oslo, priv. col., see Eggum, 1983, p. 33) and Morning (1884; Bergen, Meyers Saml.), this new style also underlined the process of Norwegian independence from Sweden, linked with parliamentary liberalism and ideas of radical social reform. In 1882 Munch took part in the organization of the first Høstutstilling, free of the Norwegian Kunstforening’s sponsorship and censorship; as subject-matter the artists exhibiting selected the life of the urban poor in addition to Norwegian landscapes.

The Kristiania Bohème and the first one-man exhibition, 1884–9

Artists, writers and students who opposed bourgeois society and morality formed a loose association referred to as the Kristiania Bohème. The spokesman for the group was Hans Jaeger, an anarchist writer who advocated an anti-bourgeois life style of emancipation and freedom focused on sexual liberation, social equality and the rejection of Christianity. Demoralized, however, by government repression and deprived of a political base, the artists turned away from socially engaged art to a fundamentally subjective and introspective art. Munch spent much of 1885–6, the most active and public years of the Kristiania Bohème, working on a single painting, The Sick Child (Oslo, N.G.). It depicts a teenaged girl propped up against a pillow in a large armchair, next to an older woman who bows her head in despair and grief. Grounded in Munch’s recollections of his sister’s death c. ten years earlier, in accordance with Jaeger’s dictum of the primacy of personal experience, and possibly influenced by the contemporary success of thematically similar paintings in Scandinavia and Central Europe, The Sick Child was conceived in a variation of Impressionist technique, but in the course of a year-long alteration Munch built up thick coagulations of paint into which the final remaining image was more scratched than painted, and over which a veil of thin rivulets of paint was placed (to be removed during a partial repainting c. 1893). In his experimentation Munch created effects similar to those achieved in the late 1880s by James Ensor and Vincent van Gogh in works today recognized as precursors of twentieth-century Expressionism. In Norway in 1886, however, there was no measure by which The Sick Child could be judged. Exhibited at the 1886 Høstutstilling in Kristiania as A Study, the painting was vehemently attacked by critics and fellow artists alike, so that only Hans Jaeger in the newspaper Dagendared to defend it, describing it as an intuitive work of genius.

Other works by Munch of the period of the Kristiania Bohème focus on his experience of sexual relationships, in particular his jealousy-ridden affair with Emily ‘Milly’ Ihlen, the wife of his cousin Captain Carl Thaulow and identified as ‘Mrs Heiberg’ after 1890 in fragmentary, diary-like, semi-fictional notes modeled on Jaeger’s novellas. In the paintings Hulda (1886; destr.) and The Day After (1886; destr.; 1894–5 version, Oslo, N.G.) he posed women aggressively proffering their naked bodies or in abandoned sleep on rumpled beds next to nightstands filled with empty liquor bottles. Private icons of the Kristiania Bohème’s faith in free love, such images hung in Munch’s studio as objects of personal devotion and melancholy recollections of failed romance, unable to find public audiences while government efforts at censorship were renewed.

Devastated and disappointed by the reception and rejection of The Sick Child, his erotic motifs repressed, Munch reverted to a more common Naturalist style after 1886 in renditions of subjectively evocative landscapes and in portraits that more readily found a market than did his experimental bohemian works. In a daringly provocative, speculative gesture he collected his works into a large one-man exhibition at the Studentersamfund, Kristiania, in April and May 1889, an event unprecedented in Norway except in the contemporary celebration of the renowned, elderly academic landscape painter Hans Fredrik Gude. The works Munch exhibited demonstrated his move from Impressionist experiment with form dissolved in the summer sun towards a more firmly modeled Naturalism in which effects of light were manipulated for emotive value. In place of the failed Sick Child he substituted a massive new painting on the same theme, Spring (1.69?2.64 m, 1889; Oslo, N.G.), in which Munch concentrated on effects of sunlight pouring in through a brightly illuminated window, an emblem of hope set in contrast to the desperation of the convalescent girl and her concerned companion. With this remarkable demonstration of painterly bravura and a monumental portrait of Hans Jaeger after his release from prison (1.10?0.84 m, 1889; Oslo, N.G.) as its centerpieces, the exhibition succeeded in obtaining for Munch a state grant to study drawing with Léon Bonnat in Paris. In 1889 Munch spent his first summer at Åsgårdstrand on Kristianiafjord (now Oslofjord), a retreat to which he consistently returned and that for more than 20 years provided the setting for innumerable paintings.

Paris, 1889–92

Although Munch had briefly visited exhibitions in Antwerp and Paris in 1885, the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and associated art exhibitions provided extensive experience of contemporary painting for him on his arrival in Paris. Almost immediately, however, he entered a period of debilitating depression and grief after being informed that his father had died suddenly. He was unable to paint and isolated himself in a room in Saint-Cloud, where he jotted down recollections of his father and of his affair with ‘Mrs Heiberg’ and engaged in ruminations on art, love, death and immortality with the equally disillusioned Danish poet Emanuel Goldstein. The combination of his grieving process and Goldstein’s discovery of French Decadent and Symbolist poetry caused Munch to reform his own views on art, so that he rejected the Naturalism of the Kristiania Bohème for a more subjective form of Symbolism conjoined with his monist views of a pantheistic life-force inherent in all matter, forbidding death in a process of material transformation. The transmission of life in sexual intercourse was a primary principle in Munch’s new-found pseudo-scientific faith, and in projects for its depiction he formulated the transformed purpose of his art (Munch, 1929, p. 17): A strong naked arm—a tanned powerful neck—a young woman rests her head on the arching chest.... These two in that moment when they are not themselves, but only one of thousands of sexual links tying one generation to another generation. People should understand the sanctity, the grandeur of it, and would take off their hats as if in a church. I would make a number of such paintings. No longer would interiors, people who read and women who knit, be painted.

The conversion of emotions into works of art culminated during the spring of 1890 in two paintings, Night(Oslo, N.G.) and Spring Day on Karl Johan Street (Bergen, Billedgal.), both adapting principles of Neo-Impressionism to subjective images representing, respectively, death and grief on the one hand and life and joy on the other: the one as a scene tinged in blue, depicting a lone figure seated in a dark interior while a window permits a view on to a nocturnal winter cityscape, the other a springtime view of Kristiania’s main thoroughfare with groups of people promenading in bright sunshine. In 1891 he used similar variations on Neo-Impressionist technique, depicting scenes of city life, as in Rue Lafayette (Oslo, N.G.), in order to project his emotional response to contemporary urban existence. Late in the year, however, he began to assimilate aspects of Synthetism, largely based on his experience of works by the Scandinavian followers of Paul Gauguin, such as Jens F. Willumsen and Ivan Aguéli, into his artistic vocabulary, most notably in his drawings of 1891–2 for a collection of Goldstein’s poetry, Alruner (‘Mandrake’), and in the mixed-media painting Melancholy (Oslo, Munch-Mus.), which is derived from the drawings. In these works, as well as in the drawings intended for publication along with (but not directly illustrating) the poems of the Norwegian poets Sigbjørn Obstfelder and Vilhelm Krag, and in his initial paintings of a Kiss (1892; Oslo, N.G.) and Despair (1892; Stockholm, Thielska Gal.), Munchoutlined a range of emotional subject-matter that he was to work on again and again and that here formed the foundation of a series of paintings he grouped together under the title Love.

Berlin and the major cycles, 1892–1907

Munch arrived in Berlin in autumn 1892, after he was invited to exhibit by the Verein Berliner Künstler. His exhibition there was dominated by paintings emulating various French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist tendencies, but a majority of the members of the Verein voted to close it after one week, mainly in response to the uncompromising personal subject-matter. The ‘Munch Affair’ aggravated already existing splits within Berlin’s art community and led to the establishment, under the leadership of the engraver Karl Koepping, of the Freie Vereinigung Berliner Künstler in protest. The ‘Affair’ also provided Munch with unprecedented publicity, which appeared to promise a significant German market for his art. He was invited to exhibit elsewhere in Germany, finally exhibiting in Berlin at the Equitable Palast in December of the same year.

Apart from the summers painting in Norway, Munch spent the next three years in Germany in extensive, almost frenetic, exhibition activity, through which he gained a small but influential clientele of patrons, such as Eberhard von Bodenhausen, Arthur von Franquet, Walther Rathenau (ii) and Harry Count Kessler (1868–1937), and critics associated with the innovative literary and artistic periodical Pan. He also befriended Pan’s editor, Julius Meier-Graefe, August Strindberg and the Polish writer Stanis?aw Przybyszewski, who were resident in Berlin at that time. Together with the German poet Richard Dehmel, they formed the core—augmented by Przybyszewski’s future wife, Dagny Juell, and periodically by other Scandinavian, French, Polish and German critics, poets and artists—of a bohemian group meeting at a bierkeller called Zum schwarzen Ferkel. It was from within this fermenting artistic milieu, with shared obsessions in monism and the psychology of sexuality, that Munch formed the beginnings of his cycle of paintings initially entitled Love, which was extended and exhibited at the Berlin Secession in 1902 as a frieze of 22 paintings on motifs of love and death unified by their Åsgårdstrand setting and later identified as The Frieze of Life. This visualized philosophy of sexuality, the psychology of love, the generation of life and the effects of death influenced most of Munch’s major paintings of the 1890s, including The Voice (1893; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.), The Vampire(1893; Göteborg, Kstmus.), Ashes (1894; Oslo, N.G.), Madonna (1894–5; Oslo, N.G.), The Scream (1893; Oslo, N.G.), Three Stages of Woman (Sphinx) (1893–5; Bergen, Meyers Saml.) and Death Enters the Sickroom (1893–4; Oslo, N.G.). The cycle demonstrates above all how Munch extended the obsessive personal nature of his subjects into universal symbols of emotional states. However, the Frieze paintings were also the beginnings of Munch’s practice of replicating and varying major motifs of his work. Initially this was done to satisfy patrons who wished to purchase particular motifs while Munch resisted breaking up his cyclical, multi-image concept. Thus, for example, in 1895 Arthur von Franquet sought to purchase The Scream, and rather than selling his cycle painting, Munch varied it for the collector in both composition and material, creating a pastel version of the image (New York, priv. col.) (In 2012 this work gained notoriety as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction at that point in history, with a winning bid of $119.5 million.) After he finally did accede to demands for the sale of isolated paintings from his Frieze in 1909–10, Munch painted new versions of the sold motifs for himself, disrupting the sense of a painting’s uniqueness and originality while also continuously varying the motifs in an ongoing process of formal and material experimentation.

The same motifs provided the material for Munch’s initial attempts at printmaking. Munch had learnt to make drypoints in 1894 for financial reasons (prints were easier to sell and cheaper than paintings while also having potentially a larger audience and clientele), and he printed his first color lithographs and woodcuts in 1896. As an artist he had a rare ability to master various printmaking techniques at the same time. An initial portfolio of eight drypoints was published in 1895 by Meier-Graefe and Bodenhausen, but a more ambitious project for a portfolio of 20 lithographs and woodcuts to be entitled Speilet (‘the mirror’), although announced for publication in 1897, was never completed (examples in Cambridge, MA, Fogg and Oslo, Munch-Mus.). In 1909 he published the series of lithographs illustrating his own story of the life and death of a couple, the first and last human inhabitants of an island, Alpha og Omega. Prints of various types became important foundations for Munch’s investigation of the same motifs throughout his life. Through the prints, and especially through his woodcuts (e.g. Workers in the Snow, 1911; Oslo, Munch-Mus. and Anxiety, 1896), he was able to exploit various effects he also used in his paintings, for example stylization and chiaroscuro, which were allied to a great expressiveness of line. His use of woodcut was innovative, in that he began to exploit the structure of the wood itself, thus emphasizing the inherent expressiveness of the material. Munch’s woodcuts had a marked influence on later artists, especially the German Expressionists, and they did much to foster a revival of the technique. From the time he made his first prints, the prints and the paintings largely fed off one another.

Munch had also become interested in photography after his meeting with Strindberg in 1892. He used photographs for documenting his work and his surroundings but also as the basis for portraits and other compositions. Although he never regarded his photography as the equal of his prints and paintings, he considered it, following Strindberg, as particularly revealing of character, and, after he bought a small Kodak camera in Berlin in 1902, he made extensive use of it for self-portraits (especially in the period 1902–8 and the years around 1930). His photographs, for example Self-portrait, Åsgårdstrand (1904; Oslo, Munch-Mus.), are often more experimental than his other works, especially in their treatment of light, and he made particular use of blur and double exposure. Although he spoke in the 1930s of collecting his self-portraits into a cohesive album, he never put the photographs on exhibition and they remained private, if aesthetically and technically adventurous, images during his lifetime.

Constant travel in France and Germany after 1895 and a dramatic romantic involvement with a Norwegian woman, Tulla Larsen, beginning in 1898 caused Munch to seek to restore his nervous and physical strength in the sanatorium of Kornhaug in Gudbrandsdalen in 1899–1900. He continued to work on Frieze of Life motifs and their variations but also began to receive an increasing number of portrait commissions from Germany and to gain significant patronage as well as critical recognition there. Despite the traumatic end of his relationship with Tulla Larsen in 1902, which resulted in his being shot in the hand and which inaugurated a period of intense psychological turmoil for him, Munch fulfilled his varied commissions. These included a frieze of twelve tempera paintings for the Kammerspielhaus of Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), for whom he also executed stage designs, in Berlin (1907; now Berlin, Neue N.G.). Another frieze intended for the room of the children of the German collector Max Linde (1862–1940) (now Oslo, Munch-Mus.) was completed in 1904, although Munch’s use of the same subject-matter meant that Linde (who wanted landscapes) did not accept it. At this time Munch also painted a new cycle on love relationships, entitled The Green Room, for example Consolation (The Green Room) (1907; Oslo, Munch-Mus.). Manifesting a now characteristic multiplicity of stylistic approaches, the painting cycles continued to explore the motifs of The Frieze of Life, but with shifting emphases that began to accentuate group dynamics rather than individual relationships. The same is true of the monumental triptych Bathing Men (The Ages of Life) (1907–8), in which the paintings Youth(Bergen, Meyers Saml.), Maturity (Bathing Men) (Helsinki, Athenaeum A. Mus.) and Old Age (Oslo, Munch-Mus.) are a celebration of masculinity and virility manifested in fraternal association, naked in intense sunlight. With their advocacy of natural communal nakedness and healthy bodies, these images closely echo the tenets of the Lebensreform (‘lifestyle reform’) movement then enthusiastically propagated in Germany and Scandinavia, often with undertones of Nordic and Germanic exceptionalism.


Munch’s fragile psychological and physical health broke down under the aggravation of excessive alcohol consumption and nicotine poisoning in 1908, and he entered the sanatorium of Dr. Daniel Jacobsen in Copenhagen to effect a cure of what Munch himself identified as his ‘nerve crisis’. He used the enforced rest and recuperation to continue a series of full-length portraits, to experiment further with photography, to arrange major sales of works to Norwegian collectors, and to prepare an extensive retrospective exhibition in Kristiania. Once released from the clinic, Munch moved in 1909 to an isolated estate in Kragerø on the southern Norwegian coast, and he entered the competition for the wall paintings in the newly constructed University Aula in Kristiania. After lengthy public debate, and after he was invited by the Sonderbund of Düsseldorf to exhibit in an exhibition in 1912 in Cologne intended to present a survey of Expressionism, of which he was proclaimed a precursor, with 32 paintings on show, Munch received the commission. The paintings, the most important of which were History, Alma Mater and The Sun, were finally installed in 1916. The imagery is centered in the painting The Sun, derived from landscape studies and paintings of the massive boulders on the seashore of Kragerø, and presents original allegories of the faculties of history and science as rooted in the folk wisdom of the Norwegian people. They demonstrate another facet of Munch’s adaptability of style to setting; the broadly painted, highly simplified form of the Aula paintings, intended to be seen at a distance, contrasts with the exploration of spatial disjuncture and heavily massed forms in other works of the time. Here style, as a relative entity, was manipulated and altered from image to image, and Munch frequently cited practices from his earlier works as if he were making memory visible.

Isolated from his German patrons during World War I, Munch found a Norwegian audience to be his most attentive for the first time since the 1880s. Landscapes gained renewed importance for him. Portraits of leading industrialists, financiers, politicians, cultural figures, and their families became a major means of support as new commissions of the stature of the Aula murals, such as wall paintings for a planned city hall in Oslo, failed to materialize. The frieze of 12 paintings offering new interpretations of the Frieze of Lifethemes for the women workers’ canteen at the Freia Chocolate Factory did, however, present him with a welcome, if somewhat diminished monumental format in 1922. While he also continued to work on a monumental Workers Frieze, hoping to house it in the proposed Oslo City Hall, this proved to be essentially a homeless, ambitious but private project. During the 1920s Munch overcame his wartime isolation through extensive European travels and a series of major exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany, where he was now accepted as a member of the Kunstakademien of Prussia and Bavaria. Established as a precursor of modern art, Munch also sought to orchestrate the myth being formed around him. During 1909–15 he began to collect together poeticized autobiographical and philosophical and artistic thoughts, which he later augmented with drawings and prints in a massive bound portfolio he called The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Oslo, Kommunes Kstsaml., MS. T 2547). He also pulled new impressions of earlier prints, reworked or repainted motifs of the 1890s and early 1900s, although continuing to experiment, and formulated the contents of retrospective exhibitions such as that of 1927 in Berlin (Berlin, Neue, N.G.) and, enlarged, in Oslo (N.G.).

Munch’s 70th birthday in 1933 received official recognition both in Norway—he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St Olav—and internationally. It was also the occasion of the publication of two extensive monographs on his work by Jens Thiis and Pola Gauguin. The years following, however, as Nazism triumphed in Germany and political turmoil marked Norwegian life as well, proved less productive or profitable for Munch. He had recurring problems with cysts in his eyes, causing temporary partial blindness, but also serving as the occasion to depict in a group of watercolors the shifting shapes of the impediments to his vision. His art was removed from German museums and classified as ‘degenerate’ (see Entartete Kunst); the opportunities for exhibition, whether in Norway or elsewhere, decreased dramatically, although auctions of his works from German collections demonstrated continued demand for his art. By the time Germany invaded and occupied Norway in 1940 Munch had withdrawn again into an isolated existence that focused on his increasingly self-referential art and on growing crops at his estates in Ekely, at Skøyen on the outskirts of Oslo, and Hvitsten on Oslofjord. Norwegian museums also removed his paintings and prints from view, although regular attempts were made by some in the German and Norwegian press sympathetic to Nazism to rehabilitate his work and his life as exemplary of Nordic traits. Munch, however, refused to participate in these or other efforts to recruit him in the cause of the Third Reich and its allies. He became fatally ill after an explosion at the munitions depot at Filipstad near Ekely broke the windows in his house. In his will he bequeathed most of his work—over 1000 paintings, some 15,400 prints and a large number of their plates, 5000 watercolors and drawings, and 6 sculptures—to the Municipality of Oslo. The collection became available to the public after the opening of the Munch-Museet in Oslo in 1963.




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