Past Masters: Edvard Munch, See It With Feeling
In late August, two of Munch's most famous paintings, "The Scream" and "Madonna," were stolen in a daring daylight heist at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, as astonished museum-goers looked on. (This was actually the second time "The Scream" has been abducted!) In honor of this misfortunate situation, we present the following excerpts from the Introduction to Edvard Munch by Ian Dunlop (St. Martin's Press, 1977):
The best introduction to the art of Edvard Munch [1863-1944] is the artist's own words, written when he was twenty-six. . . . He found himself brooding on the concerns which were to occupy him for most of his life: the nature of sexual attraction, the meaning of death, and how both could be related to his art. In his diary he wrote:
Munch's grand ambition to paint 'feelings,' his dissatisfaction with an art concerned mainly with the faithful portrayal of natural appearances, was shared by a number of artists at that time, notably Van Gogh and Gauguin. . . . Munch's significance, the source of his continuing appeal, is that he gave the Romantic tradition a new twist and a new subject matter, and in the process be became a link between the Romantics of the nineteenth century and the Expressionists of the twentieth.
The new subject matter was largely sexual in character. . . . He replaced the romantic sense of awe, with its religious implications, with the modern world's sense of anxiety, particularly sexual anxiety. His figures seem entrapped in a cycle of sexual longing, destructive passion, jealousy and death. . . .
[Art teacher Christian Krogh] introduced him to a world far removed from the confines of his family--the Bohemians of Christiania [now Oslo], a small group of anarchists and radicals who shocked and scandalized the placid middle-class society of the Norwegian capital in the 1880s. . . .
Emotion was one thing, but finding the right form to express these feelings was not easy. However, once revealed they were difficult to dislodge and Munch returned to the same image, painting it over and over again. "Art is crystallization," he maintained. In 1895 he began making prints; this enabled him to repeat and refine his images and themes still further. The techniques involved seemed to give him fresh inspiration. . . . Finally he turned to woodcuts, and in this almost lost art form he showed amazing ingenuity. . . .
But personal problems remained. He drank too much, he began to show marked schizophrenic tendencies and he became suspicious and unruly. Like Van Gogh in Arles he quarrelled with his friends. In 1895 he beat up the painter Ludvig Karsten, whose portrait he had just finished. . . . In Copenhagen in 1908, after a four-day drinking spree, he turned himself over to the care of a psychiatrist [and] underwent a series of treatments, including electric shocks, and he emerged, if not healed in his mind, at least cured of his alcoholism. In 1909, urged by his Norwegian friends, he began his return to Norway, where apart from occasional trips abroad, he was to remain for the rest of his life, living alone, avoiding people, even his family, and painting. . . .
Over the next thirty years, Munch produced a great quantity of work, landscapes, self-portraits, repeats of earlier themes and some new subjects such as workers shovelling snow and returning home from work. . . .
Munch died on 23rd January 1944, a month after his eightieth birthday. In his will he left all his work to the city of Oslo: 1,008 paintings, 15,391 prints; 4,443 drawings and watercolours; and six sculptures. . . . Much still remains to be discovered about Norway's greatest artist, who appeals to an ever increasing audience, thus fulfilling his ambition to move 'first a few, then more and more, then finally everyone.'
Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont