The Norwegian painter and graphic artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), working in an antinaturalistic expressionist style, illustrated man's emotional life in love and death. His art was a major antecedent of the expressionist movement.
Born on Dec. 12, 1863, in Loieten near Kristiania (now Oslo), Edvard Munch was the son of a military doctor. Childhood experiences with death and sickness—both his mother and sister died of tuberculosis— greatly influenced his emotional and intellectual development. This and his father's fanatic Christianity led Munch to view his life as dominated by the "twin black angels of insanity and disease."
In 1880 Munch began to study art and joined the realist painters and writers of the Kristiania bohemian circle. His ideas were strongly influenced at this time by the anarchist writer Hans Jaeger, who sought to establish an ideal society based on materialist atheism and free love. Jaeger's hopeless love affair with the wife of Christian Krohg, dean of the bohemian painters, and Munch's own brief affairs caused him to intensify the identity he saw between women, love, and death.
Munch's paintings during the 1880s were dominated by his desire to use the artistic vocabulary of realism to render subjective content. His depiction of the Sick Child (1885-1886), which employed a motif popular among Norwegian realist artists, coloristically rendered a mood of melancholy depression serving as a pictorial memorial to his dead sister. Because of universal critical rejection, Munch turned briefly to a more conservative style and through the large painting Spring (1889), a more academic version of the Sick Child, he obtained state support for study in France.
After studying briefly at a Parisian art school, Munch began to explore the possibilities made available by the French postimpressionists. The death of his father in 1889 caused a major spiritual crisis, culminating in his rejection of Jaeger's philosophy. Munch's Night in St. Cloud (1890) embodied a renewed interest in spiritual content; this painting served as a memorial to his father by presenting the artist's dejected state of mind. He summarized his intentions, "I paint not what I see, but what I saw," and identified his paintings as "symbolism: nature viewed through a temperament." Both statements accent the transformation of nature as the artist experienced it.
In 1892 the Berlin Artists' Association, an official organization consisting primarily of German academic artists, invited Munch to exhibit there. His paintings provoked a major scandal in Germany's artistically provincial capital, and the exhibition was forcibly closed. But Munch used the publicity to arrange other exhibitions and sell paintings; his art prospered and he decided to stay in Germany. He also began work on a series of paintings later entitled the Frieze of Life, which concentrated on the themes of love, anxiety, and death. Incorporating many of his best-known works, the Frieze was essentially completed in 1893 but not exhibited as a unit until 1902.
To make his work accessible to a larger public, Munch began making prints in 1894. Motifs for his prints were usually derived from his paintings, particularly the Frieze. The Frieze also served as the inspiration for the paintings he made for Max Linde (1904), Max Reinhardt's Kammerspielhaus (1907), and the Freia Chocolate Factory in Oslo (1922).
Following a nervous breakdown, Munch entered a sanatorium in Copenhagen in 1908. In the lithograph series Alpha and Omega he allegorically depicted his love affairs and his relationship to friends and enemies. In 1909 he returned to Norway to lead an isolated life. He sought new artistic motifs in the Norwegian landscape and in the activities of farmers and laborers. A more optimistic view of life briefly replaced his former existential anxiety, and this new life view attained monumental expression in the murals of the Oslo University Aula (1911-1914).
During World War I Munch returned to his earlier motifs of love and death; his own increasing age combined with the tensions of world affairs to arouse a new pessimism in him. Symbolic paintings and prints appeared side by side with stylized studies of landscapes and nudes during the 1920s; as a major project, never completed, he began to illustrate Henrik Ibsen's plays. During his last years, plagued by partial blindness, Munch edited the diaries written in his youth and painted harsh self-portraits and memories of his earlier life. He died in Ekely outside Oslo on Jan. 23, 1944.
Further Reading on Edvard Munch
Some of Munch's own writings are contained in Johan H. Langaard and Reidar Revold, Edvard Munch (1963; trans. 1964). Reinhold Heller, Edvard Munch: The Scream (1972), is the first book in English to make use of Munch's unpublished writings and of his drawings; although it concentrates on a single drawing, it serves as an introduction to his art in general.