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(National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design/National Gallery, Oslo. © 2006 Munch Museum/Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society, New York)

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

Compounding Edvard's misery was his own fragile health. As Sue Prideaux recounts in her new biography, Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream, he had tuberculosis and spit blood as a boy. His father's expressed preference for the next world (an alarming trait in a physician) only amplified the son's sense of death's imminence. One of Munch's finest self-portraits, a lithograph of 1895, depicts his head and clerical-looking collar materializing out of a black background; a thin white band at the top of the work contains his name and the year, and a corresponding strip below features a skeletal arm. "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity—illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle," he wrote in an undated private journal. In a never-ending saga of woe, one of Edvard's sisters spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness, and his one brother, who had seemed atypically robust for a Munch, died suddenly of pneumonia at 30. Only his youngest sister, Inger, who like him never married, survived into old age.

Edvard's precocious talent was recognized early. How quickly his art (and his personality) evolved can be seen from two self-portraits. A small, three-quarters profile on cardboard, painted in 1881-82 when he was only 18, depicts the artist's classic good looks—straight nose, cupid's-bow mouth, strong chin—with a fine brush and academic correctness. Five years later, Munch's palette-knife work in a larger self-portrait is impressionistic and splotchy. His hair and throat blur into the background; his lowered gaze and outthrust chin lend him an insolent air; and the red rims of his eyes suggest boozy, sleepless nights, the start of a long descent into alcoholism.

For a full-length portrait in 1889 of Hans Jaeger, the nihilist at the heart of the bohemian crowd in Kristiania with whom Munch increasingly fraternized, the artist posed the notorious writer in a slouch on a sofa with a glass tumbler on the table in front of him and a hat low on his forehead. Jaeger's head is aslant and his eyes jut forward in a pose both arrogant and dissolute. Along with psychological astuteness, the compelling portrait demonstrates Munch's awareness of recent developments in painting. The dappled blue-and-gray brushwork of Jaeger's coat suggests Impressionism, especially the work of Cézanne, which the Norwegian may have seen on trips to Paris in 1885 and 1889.

For Christian Munch, who was struggling to pay the expenses of his son's education, Edvard's association with dubious companions was a source of anguish. Edvard, too, was torn. Though he lacked his father's faith in God, he had nonetheless inherited his sense of guilt. Reflecting later on his bohemian friends and their embrace of free love, he wrote: "God—and everything was overthrown—everyone raging in a wild, deranged dance of life....But I could not set myself free from my fear of life and thoughts of eternal life."

His first sexual experience apparently took place in the summer of 1885, when he was 21, with Millie Thaulow, the wife of a distant cousin. They would meet in the woods near the charming fishing village of Aasgaardstrand. He was maddened and thrilled while the relationship lasted and tormented and desolate when Millie ended it after two years. The theme of a forlorn man and a dominating woman fascinated Munch. In one of his most celebrated images, Vampire (1893-94), a red-haired woman can be seen sinking her mouth into the neck of a disconsolate-looking lover, her tresses streaming over him like poisonous tendrils. In another major painting, his 1894 Ashes, a woman reminiscent of Millie confronts the viewer, her white dress unbuttoned to reveal a red slip, her hands raised to the sides of her head while a distraught lover holds his head in despair.

Munch was in Paris in November 1889 when a friend delivered a letter to him. Verifying that it contained bad news, he bid the friend farewell and went alone to a nearby restaurant, deserted except for a couple of waiters, where he read that his father had died of a stroke. Although their relationship had been fraught—"He didn't understand my needs; I didn’t understand the things he prized most highly," Munch once observed—the death unhinged him. Now head of a financially pressed family, he was sobered by the responsibility and gripped by remorse that he had not been with his father when he died. Because of this absence, he could not release his feelings of grief into a painting of the death scene, as he had done when his mother and his sister Sophie died. Night in Saint Cloud (painted in 1890), a moody, blue interior of his suburban Paris apartment, captures his state of mind. In it, a shadowy figure in a top hat—his roommate, Danish poet Emanuel Goldstein—stares out a window at the bright lights on the Seine River. Evening light, streaming through a mullioned window, casts a symbolic pattern of a cross onto the floor, evoking the spirit of his devout father.

Following his father's death, Munch embarked on the most productive—if most troubled—stage of his life. Dividing his time between Paris and Berlin, he undertook a series of paintings that he called The Frieze of Life. He produced 22 works as part of the series for a 1902 exhibition of the frieze in Berlin. Suggestive of his state of mind, the paintings bore such titles as Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety, Death in the Sickroom and The Scream, which he painted in 1893. His style varies dramatically during this period, depending on the emotion he was trying to communicate in a particular painting. He turned to an Art Nouveau sultriness for Madonna (1894-95) and a stylized, psychologically laden Symbolism for Summer Night’s Dream (1893). In his superb Self-portrait with Cigarette of 1895, painted while he was feverishly engaged with The Frieze of Life, he employed the flickering brushwork of Whistler, scraping and rubbing at the suit jacket so that his body appears as evanescent as the smoke that trails from the cigarette he holds smoldering near his heart. In Death in the Sickroom, a moving evocation of Sophie's death painted in 1893, he adopted the bold graphic outlines of van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. In it, he and his sisters loom in the foreground, while his aunt and praying father attend to the dying girl, who is obscured by her chair. Across the vast space that divides the living siblings (portrayed as adults) from their dying sister, the viewer's eye is drawn to the vacated bed and useless medicines in the rear.

The frieze won wide approval in Berlin, and Munch was suddenly collectible. "From the combination of crude Nordic delight in color, the influence of Manet, and a penchant for reverie, something quite special springs," one critic wrote. "It's like a fairytale," Munch rejoiced in a letter to his aunt. But despite his pleasure in his overdue success, Munch remained far from happy. Some of the strongest paintings in the series were those he had completed the most recently, chronicling a love affair that induced the misery he often said he required for his art.

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