‘A Craving for Crystallisation’: Themes Suggested by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, detail of lithograph, 1895.

‘I shall no longer paint interiors, people reading and women knitting. They will be people who are alive, who breathe and feel, suffer and love.’
Edvard Munch

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of the prints of Edvard Munch. (British Museum, London, until 21 July)

Munch was a troubled genius. Born in 1863, he grew up in Kristiania (modern day Oslo), a city that like many others at that time had been shaken by industrialisation, political upheaval, poverty and disease. His father was a medical officer, severe, pious and dogmatic. His mother died of TB when he was 5 and his sister died of the same illness when he was 13. Another sister was taken to an asylum. He was himself a sickly child and he worried throughout his life that he had inherited his family’s mental health issues. As a young man he fell in with Bohemians and nihilists. He took to drinking and brawling, and became an alcoholic. He couldn’t sleep. He thought about death all the time and contemplated suicide. 

'The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side from the day I was born.'

Munch channelled all this stress and anxiety into his art. A self-portrait has skeleton arms. A mother despairs over a sick child. A crowd walks towards us with blank, empty faces. A melancholy man cradles his head in his hands. A woman stands alone on a shoreline with her back to us. A naked couple kiss by an open window. An anxious figure puts its hands to its ears and screams.

‘There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.'

We may find it hard to identify with Munch as an individual – he just seems too tortured, confused and self-pitying. But he certainly captured something of the modern condition: isolation and angst; feeling alone in the crowd; struggling for identity and belonging, for a sense of meaning and purpose; worrying about love and death. 

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896 by Edvard Munch

Munch also teaches a number of lessons for people working in the creative industry. From the outset he was an artist with ambition. He was not afraid to cast aside the conventions of the category and set himself lofty objectives.

‘We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create art, or at least lay the foundations of an art, that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart.’

Such was Munch’s conviction, that he was untroubled by setbacks. When in 1892 his first one-man exhibition in Berlin closed after one week, he regarded the critical outrage as a badge of pride, a confirmation of his radicalism.

'Never have I had such an amusing time - it's incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir.'

In his art if not in life Munch was admirably resilient. He recognised that his difference represented his greatest creative asset.

'My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?’

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

A vampire feasts on her prey. Image courtesy The Savings Bank Foundation DNB

Munch also embraced conflict and ambiguity. He wanted to express raw feeling and emotional truth in his work, and he was drawn to articulate his own intense paranoia and uncertainty.

This is particularly evident in his troubled encounters with women. For Munch women were frail and innocent, sinister and threatening. He desired them and he feared them. He was possessive and jealous, in awe and in doubt. 

No surprise perhaps that Munch’s relationships tended to be tempestuous and short-lived. Flame-haired Tulla Larsen was so besotted that she followed him round Europe. But he couldn’t face marriage. When they separated he shot himself in the hand and cut their joint-portrait in half.

A woman’s long hair wraps itself around her lover. Is it an embrace or an entrapment? A woman puts her arms around a man’s shoulders, his head bowed. Is she consoling him or preying on him? 

'My afflictions belong to me and my art - they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety, I would have been a rudderless ship. My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life.’

We can also learn from Munch something about the power of the repeated image. He returned again and again to the same themes: the melancholy loner, the jealous lover, the femme fatale, the sick child, the haunting moonlight, the enchanted forest, the existential scream.

He explored these themes in paintings, lithographs and woodcuts; in etchings, drypoints and mezzotints. He experimented with bold colour washes; with heavy outlines, sharp contrasts and simplified forms; by cutting the print block into jigsaw pieces and reassembling them.

With every new articulation of a subject Munch brought a fresh perspective, and the images gained resonance through repetition.

'The point is that one sees things at different moments with different eyes.’

Munch sold more than 30,000 prints in his lifetime. They gave him access to a broad public, made him famous, financed a comfortable later life and enabled him to keep hold of many of his paintings - which he loved so much that he called them his ‘children’. 

So, although it’s hard to identify with Munch the individual, his art echoes with profoundly modern themes; and he teaches people in creative professions some powerful lessons: hold lofty ambitions for your craft; be resilient in the face of criticism; channel your emotional conflicts into your work; celebrate your difference; and embrace the power of repetition.

‘Art is the opposite of nature… Art is the human craving for crystallization. Nature is the infinite realm from which art takes its nourishment.’ 

Munch spent a good deal of his life travelling around Europe. But for his last 27 years he lived, comfortable and alone, on his estate outside Oslo. Despite all his paranoia, hypochondria and melancholy, he reached the ripe old age of 80. He died in 1944 confident in his own immortality.

'From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.’

 

'Oh, it's not easy to resist temptation,
Walking around looking like a figment of somebody else's imagination.
Taking ev'ry word she says just like an open invitation,
But the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation.

Like a finger running down a seam,
From a whisper to a scream.
So I whisper and I scream,
But don't get me wrong.
Please don't leave me waitin' too long,
Waitin' too long.’

Elvis Costello, 'From a Whisper to a Scream'

 

No. 229