Edvard Munch, who never married, called his paintings his children and hated to be separated from them. Living alone on his estate outside Oslo for the last 27 years of his life, increasingly revered and increasingly isolated, he surrounded himself with work that dated to the start of his long career. Upon his death in 1944, at the age of 80, the authorities discovered—behind locked doors on the second floor of his house—a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints, as well as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, lithographic stones, woodcut blocks, copperplates and photographs. Yet in a final irony of his difficult life, Munch is famous today as the creator of a single image, which has obscured his overall achievement as a pioneering and influential painter and printmaker.
Munch's The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age—wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the "air turned to blood" and the "faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white." Vibrating in his ears he heard "a huge endless scream course through nature." He made two oil paintings, two pastels and numerous prints of the image; the two paintings belong to Oslo's National Gallery and to the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both have been stolen in recent years, and the Munch Museum’s is still missing. The thefts have only added posthumous misfortune and notoriety to a life filled with both, and the added attention to the purloined image has further distorted the artist's reputation.
With the aim of correcting the balance, a major retrospective of Munch's work, the first to be held in an American museum in almost 30 years, opened last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. "Everybody knows, but everybody doesn't know Munch," says Kynaston McShine, the MoMA curator-at-large who organized the exhibition. "They all have the idea that they know Munch, but they really don’t."
The Munch who materializes in this show is a restless innovator whose personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures fed his creative work. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness," he once wrote. "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder....My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Munch believed that a painter mustn't merely transcribe external reality but should record the impact a remembered scene had on his own sensibility. As demonstrated in a recent exhibition of self-portraits at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, much of Munch's work can be seen as self-portraiture. Even for an artist, he was exceptionally narcissistic. "Munch's work is like a visual autobiography," McShine observes.
Although he began his artistic career as a student of Norwegian painter Christian Krohg, who advocated the realistic depiction of contemporary life known as Naturalism, Munch developed a psychologically charged and expressive style to transmit emotional sensation. Indeed, by the time he raised his brush to the easel, he typically no longer paid attention to his model. "I do not paint what I see, but what I saw," he once explained. Influenced as a young man by his exposure in Paris to the work of Gauguin and van Gogh, who both rejected the academic conventions of the official Salon, he progressed toward simplified forms and blocks of intense color with the avowed purpose of conveying strong feelings. In early 1890, in a huff, Munch quit the class of an esteemed Parisian painting teacher who had criticized him for portraying a rosy brick wall in the green shades that appeared to him in a retinal afterimage. In ways that antagonized the contemporary art critics, who accused him of exhibiting "a discarded half-rubbed-out sketch" and mocked his "random blobs of color," he would incorporate into his paintings graffiti-like scrawls, or thin his paint and let it drip freely.
The radical simplicity of his woodcut technique, in which he often used only one brilliant color and exposed the grain of the wood on the print, can still seem startlingly new. For the woodcuts, he developed his own method, incising the image with rough broad strokes and cutting the finished woodblocks into sections that he inked separately. His printmaking style, as well as the bold composition and color palette of his paintings, would deeply influence the German Expressionists of the early 20th century, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and August Macke. Characteristically, though, Munch shunned the role of mentor. He preferred to stand apart.
"He wanted to be regarded as a contemporary artist, not an old master," says Gerd Woll, senior curator at the Munch Museum. He embraced chance fearlessly. Visitors to his studio were shocked when they saw that he had left his paintings out of doors in all kinds of weather. "From the first years, the criticism of Munch was that he didn't finish his paintings, they were sketches and starts," Woll says. "This was true, if you compare them to paintings in the Salon. But he wanted them to look unfinished. He wanted them to be raw and rough, and not smooth and shiny." It was emotion he wanted to depict. "It's not the chair that should be painted," he once wrote, "but what a person has felt at the sight of it."
One of Munch's earliest memories was of his mother, confined with tuberculosis, gazing wistfully from her chair at the fields that stretched outside the window of their house in Kristiania (now Oslo). She died in 1868, leaving Edvard, who was 5, his three sisters and younger brother in the care of her much older husband, Christian, a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism. Edvard's aunt Karen came to live with the family, but the boy's deepest affection resided with Sophie, his older sister. Her death nine years later at age 15, also of tuberculosis, lacerated him for life. Dying, she asked to be lifted out of bed and placed in a chair; Munch, who painted many compositions of her illness and last days, kept that chair until his death. (Today it is owned by the Munch Museum.)