Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream

Though the Norwegian artist is known for a single image, he was one of the most prolific, innovative and influential figures in modern art

(National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design/National Gallery, Oslo. © 2006 Munch Museum/Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York)
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In 1898, on a visit to Kristiania, Munch had met the woman who would become his cruel muse. Tulla Larsen was the wealthy daughter of Kristiania's leading wine merchant, and at 29, she was still unmarried. Munch's biographers have relied on his sometimes conflicting and far from disinterested accounts to reconstruct the tormented relationship. He first set eyes on Larsen when she arrived at his studio in the company of an artist with whom he shared the space. From the outset, she pursued him aggressively. In his telling, their affair began almost against his will. He fled—to Berlin, then on a yearlong dash across Europe. She followed. He would refuse to see her, then succumb. He memorialized their relationship in The Dance of Life of 1899-1900, set on midsummer's night in Aasgaardstrand, the seaside village where he once trysted with Millie Thaulow and where, in 1897, he had purchased a tiny cottage. At the center of the picture, a vacant-eyed male character, representing Munch himself, dances with a woman in a red dress (probably Millie). Their eyes do not meet, and their stiff bodies maintain an unhappy distance. To the left, Larsen can be seen, golden-haired and smiling benevolently, in a white dress; on the right, she appears again, this time frowning in a black dress, her countenance as dark as the garment she wears, her eyes downcast in bleak disappointment. On a green lawn, other couples dance lustfully in what Munch had called that "deranged dance of life"—a dance he dared not join.

Larsen longed for Munch to marry her. His Aasgaardstrand cottage, which is now a house museum, contains the antique wedding chest, made for a bride's trousseau, that she gave him. Though he wrote that the touch of her "narrow, clammy lips" felt like the kiss of a corpse, he yielded to her imprecations and even went so far as to make a grudging proposal. "In my misery I think you would at least be happier if we were married," he wrote to her. Then, when she came to Germany to present him with the necessary papers, he lost them. She insisted that they travel to Nice, as France did not require these documents. Once there, he escaped over the border to Italy and eventually to Berlin in 1902 to stage The Frieze of Life exhibition.

That summer, Munch returned to his cottage in Aasgaardstrand. He sought peace, but drinking heavily and brawling publicly, he failed to find it. Then after more than a year's absence, Larsen reappeared. He ignored her overtures, until her friends informed him that she was in a suicidal depression and taking large doses of morphine. He reluctantly agreed to see her. There was a quarrel, and somehow—the full story is unknown—he shot himself with a revolver, losing part of a finger on his left hand and also inflicting on himself a less obvious psychological injury. Prone to exaggerated feelings of persecution—in his painting Golgotha of 1900, for instance, he depicted himself nailed to a cross—Munch magnified the fiasco in his mind, until it assumed an epic scale. Describing himself in the third person, he wrote, "Everybody stared at him, at his deformed hand. He noticed that those he shared a table with were disgusted by the sight of his monstrosity." His anger intensified when Larsen, a short time later, married another artist. "I had sacrificed myself needlessly for a whore," he wrote.

In the next few years, his drinking, which had long been excessive, grew uncontrollable. "The rages were coming more and more often now," he wrote in his journal. "The drink was meant to calm them, especially in the morning but as the day wore on I became nervy, angry." Anguished as he was, he still managed to produce some of his finest work, including a tableau (executed in several versions) in which he uses himself as the model for the slain French revolutionary Marat, and Larsen is cast as Marat's assassin, the grim, implacable Charlotte Corday. His 1906 Self-portrait with a Bottle of Wine, in which he paints himself alone at a restaurant table, with only a plate, a wine bottle and a glass, testifies to intense disquiet. Two waiters stand behind him in the almost empty restaurant, evoking the setting in which he had read of his father's death.

In the fall of 1908, Munch collapsed in Copenhagen. Hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side, he was persuaded by his old roommate from the Saint-Cloud apartment, Emanuel Goldstein, to check himself into a private sanitarium on the outskirts of the city. There he reduced his drinking and regained some mental stability. In May, he departed, vigorous and eager to get back to his easel. Almost half of his life remained. Yet most art historians would agree that the great preponderance of his best work was created before 1909. His late years would be less tumultuous, but at a price of personal isolation. Reflecting this view, MoMA devotes less than a fifth of the show to his post-1909 output. "In his later years," explains curator McShine, "there are not as many poignant paintings as there were when he was involved with life."

In 1909, Munch returned to Norway, where he began work on an important series of murals for the assembly hall at Oslo University. Still in place, the Aula Decorations, as the murals are known, signaled Munch's new determination to look on the bright side, in this case quite literally, with a centerpiece of a dazzling sun. In newly independent Norway, Munch was hailed as the national artist, much as the then recently deceased Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg served, respectively, as national writer and composer. Along with his new fame came wealth, but not serenity. Maintaining his distance from an alternately adoring and scornful public, Munch withdrew to Ekely, an 11-acre estate on the outskirts of Oslo that he purchased in 1916 for a sum equivalent to the price of two or three of his paintings. He sometimes defended his isolation as necessary to produce his work. At other times, he implied it was needed to maintain his sanity. "The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright," he wrote in the early 1920s.

At Ekely, Munch took up landscape painting, depicting the countryside and farm life around him, at first with joyous color, later in bleaker tones. He also returned to favorite images, producing new renditions of some of The Frieze of Life paintings. In his later years, Munch supported his surviving family members financially and communicated with them by mail, but chose not to visit them. He spent much of his time in solitude, documenting the afflictions and indignities of his advancing years. When he was stricken with a nearly fatal influenza in the great pandemic of 1918-19, he recorded his gaunt, bearded figure in a series of self-portraits as soon as he could pick up a brush. In 1930, after a blood vessel burst in his right eye and impaired his vision, he painted, in such works as Self-portrait During the Eye Disease, the clot as it appeared to him—a large, irregular purple sphere. Sometimes he gave the sphere a head and sharp beak, like a demonic bird of prey. Eventually, it flew off; his vision returned to normal.

In Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which dates from 1940-42, not long before Munch's death, we can see what had become of the man who, as he wrote, hung back from "the dance of life." Looking stiff and physically awkward, he stands wedged between a grandfather clock and a bed, as if apologizing for taking up so much space. On a wall behind him, his "children" are arrayed, one above the other. Like a devoted parent, he sacrificed everything for them.


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