‘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

(Don’t) Turn Your Back On Me

Edvard Munch

I attended an Edvard Munch show at the Tate Modern. Dark, melancholy, awkward stuff. Angst, loneliness, jealousy. A difficult relationship with society in general and women in particular.

It was striking that he painted quite a lot of pictures of women with their backs to the viewer. A powerful expression of exclusion, loneliness, unrequited love.

I spent my youth being turned away from London’s elite nightspots. Perhaps it was the sleeveless plaid shirt, the white towelling socks, the caked on Country Born hair gel. But the bitter sense of disappointment hasn’t left me. I can taste it now. And I learned more about clubbing from Spandau Ballet videos than actual experience…

‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’

Handel, Messiah

As a young executive I was invited to apply for an Amex card. I applied and was duly rejected. Naturally I was confused and disappointed and I never spoke to them again. I’m sure consumers often feel a similar sense of exclusion from brands. Refusal and denial are shaming, embarrassing. The fear of rejection is almost as powerful as rejection itself. And then there are the coded gestures, the arcane language, the gender and cultural specific semiotics. The feeling that you don’t belong, that you’re not welcome here. It’s a private conversation, you wouldn’t understand.

I guess that’s why strategists so often recommend that brands are more open, inviting, transparent. We want brands to look us in the eye, to reach out from the canvas with a knowing glance and a welcoming smile. Easier said than done, of course.


Vilhelm Hammershoi

Yet the turned back does not have to be all bad.

The Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi often painted a solitary woman with her back to the viewer. She goes about her daily routine in a quiet middle class home, lost in private thought. Hammershoi’s subjects seem more loved than feared. This distinctive reverse view gains its power in part from being so unusual. But also from the sense of intrusion on private time. The sense of seeing, but not being seen. It’s a little awkward, but also intriguing. Am I encountering her truest self, her identity freed of relationships, social constraints and concerns about appearance?

It reminds me of the oft’ cited quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘Ethics is what you do when no one is looking.’ (I’ve uncovered versions of this quote from many sources. Henry Ford said ‘quality means doing it right when no one’s looking’. And of course, most recently Bob Diamond suggested ‘culture is how we behave when no one’s watching.’)

So how do brands behave when no one is looking? What would the brand encountered in a quiet room be up to? Would we find it dutifully engaged in customer-centric endeavours? Would its jaunty personality be sustained when there’s no one to impress? Would we discover an honest engagement with issues of citizenship and responsibility?

I’m worried that we’d most likely find the brand plotting a marketing and PR plan. I’m worried that in business as in politics too much thought nowadays is given to how things will play, how they will be perceived and reported. I suspect that too often the brand’s instinctive ethical and commercial compass has been replaced by recourse to brand image tracking and favourability ratings.

I appreciate this may be a curious thing for an adman to say. I should perhaps celebrate the triumph of modern marketing, the inevitable victory of perception in the All Seeing Age. Perhaps like a modern celebrity the smile must always be on, the guard must always be up. But it still makes me a little melancholy…

And what of Agencies? How do we behave when no one’s looking?

We are often perceived as conventions of feckless youth and superannuated yuppies. And I confess I was a little uncomfortable when Clients first started plugging in laptops, decanting lattes and working at our offices. I worried that they’d disapprove of our timekeeping, that they’d be offended by our cussing.

But as more Clients have made the Agency their mid-week home, I think the Agency has benefitted. The Embedded Client often sees passion, industry, talent and integrity. They get to see our truest self. And it’s not as bad as they, or we, may have expected.

In the words of the great Brit Soul luminary, David Grant…‘I’ve been watching you watching me. I’ve been liking you, Baby, liking me…’

First published BBH Labs: 10/09/

No. 15