Edvard Munch (December 12, 1863 – January 23, 1944) was a Norwegian expressionist painter and printmaker. His intense, evocative treatment of anguish greatly influenced development of German expressionism in the early 20th century.
The Scream (1893; originally called Despair), Munch's best known painting, is regarded as an icon of existential anguish. As with many of his works, he painted several versions of it. The Scream is one of the pieces in a series titled The Frieze of Life, in which Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, death and melancholy. It was stolen in early 2005, and unsubstantiated rumors record it as being destroyed by the thieves.
The Frieze of Life themes recur throughout Munch's work, in paintings such as The Sick Child (1886, portrait of his deceased sister Sophie), Vampire (1893–94), Ashes (1894), and The Bridge. The latter shows limp figures with featureless or hidden faces, over which loom the threatening shapes of heavy trees and brooding houses. Munch portrayed women either as frail, innocent sufferers or as lurid, life-devouring vampires. Munch analysts say this reflects his sexual anxieties.
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Born on December 12th, 1863, Løten, Norway, Munch grew up in Christiania (now Oslo). He was related to painter Jacob Munch (1776 – 1839) and historian Peder Andreas Munch (1810 – 1863). After the death of his mother, Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, of tuberculosis in 1868, Munch was raised by his deranged father, Christian Munch, until 1889 when his father died. Christian Munch instilled in his children a deep-rooted fear of hell by repeatedly telling them that if they sinned, in any way, they would be doomed to hell without chance of pardon. While Munch was still young, his parents, a brother and Munch's favourite sister Sophie (in 1877) died. A younger sister was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Munch was also often ill. Of the five siblings only Andreas married, only to die a few months after the wedding. This may explain the bleakness and pessimism of much of Munch's work. He would later say, "Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life."
In 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering, but frequent illnesses interrupted his studies. In 1880, he left the college to become a painter. In 1881, he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania. His teachers were sculptor Julius Middelthun and naturalistic painter Christian Krohg.
Munch traveled to Paris in 1885, and his work began to show the influence of French painters — first of the impressionists, and then of the postimpressionists and of art nouveau design. While stylistically influenced by the postimpressionists, Munch's subject matter is symbolist in content, depicting a state of mind rather than an external reality.
Munch maintained that the impressionism idiom did not suit his art. Interested in portraying, not a random slice of reality, but situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy, Munch carefully calculated his compositions to create a tense atmosphere.
During his career, Munch changed his idiom many times. In the 1880s, Munch's idiom was naturalistic, such as Portrait of Hans Jæger, and partly impressionistic (Rue Lafayette). In 1892, Munch formulated his characteristic, and original, Synthetist idiom as seen in Melancholy in which colour is the symbol-laden element (The Scream).
During the 1890s, Munch favoured a shallow pictorial space, and used it in his frequently frontal figures. Since he chose the poses to produce the most convincing images of states of mind and psychological conditions (Ashes), the figures lend to the paintings' a monumental, static quality. Munch's figures appear to play roles on a theatre stage (Death in the Sick-Room), even perhaps a pantomime of fixed postures signifying the emotions. Because he gave his characters only one psychological dimension, as in The Scream, Munch's men and women do not seem realistic.
In 1892, the Union of Berlin Artists invited Munch to exhibit at its November exhibition. His paintings invoked bitter controversy at the show, and after one week the exhibition closed. In Berlin, Munch involved himself in an international circle of writers, artists and critics, including the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (Munch designed the sets for several Ibsen's plays), and the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.
Between 1892 and 1908, Munch divided his time between Paris and Berlin, where he became known for his etchings, his lithographs, and his woodcuts. While in Berlin at the turn of the century, Munch experimented with a variety of new media (photography, lithography and woodcuts), in many instances re-working his older imagery.
In the autumn of 1908, Munch's anxiety became acute and he entered the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. The therapy Munch received in hospital changed his personality, and after returning to Norway in 1909, he showed more interest in nature subjects, and his work became more colourful and less pessimistic.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi's labeled his work "degenerate art", and removed his work from German museums. This deeply hurt the antifascist Munch, who had come to feel Germany was his second homeland.
Munch died in Ekely, near Oslo, on January 23, 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. He left 1,000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 4,500 drawings and watercolors, and six sculptures to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum at Tøyen in his honor. The museum houses the broadest collection of his works. Some of his paintings are at the National Gallery, also in Oslo, and others are at the Dagligstuen bar in Hotel Continental in Oslo.
- "From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."
- —Edvard Munch
Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death
In December 1893, Unter den Linden in Berlin held an exhibition of Munch's work, showing, among other pieces, six paintings entitled Study for a Series: Love. This began a cycle he later called the Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death. Frieze of Life motifs are steeped in atmosphere such as The Storm, Moonlight and Starry Night. Other motifs illuminate the nocturnal side of love, such as Rose and Amelie and Vampire. In Death in the Sickroom (1893), he depicts his sister Sophie's death to illustrate the morbid theme. The dramatic focus of the painting, in which he portrays the entire family, is the Munch figure. In 1894, he enlarged the spectrum of motifs by adding Anxiety, Ashes, Madonna and Women in Three Stages.
Around the turn of the century, Munch worked to finish the Frieze. He painted a number of pictures, several of them in larger format and to some extent featuring the art nouveau aesthetics of the time. He made a wooden frame with carved reliefs for the large painting Metabolism (1898), initially called Adam and Eve. This work reveals Munch's preoccupation with the "fall of man" myth in Munch's pessimistic philosophy of love. Motifs such as The Empty Cross and Golgota (both c. 1900) reflect a metaphysical orientation to the times, and also echo Munch's pietistic upbringing. The entire Frieze showed for the first time at the secessionism exhibition in Berlin in 1902.
- Reinhold Heller, Munch. His life and work (London: Murray, 1984).
- Gustav Schiefler, Verzeichnis des graphischen Werks Edvard Munchs bis 1906 (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1907).
- Gustav Schiefler, Edvard Munch. Das graphische Werk 1906 – 1926 (Berlin: Euphorion, 1928).