As childhoods go, the formative years of the late Norwegian painter Edvard Munch sound utterly dismal.
His mother died of tuberculosis when he was just five. His favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, died (also of TB) aged 15. And his younger sister, Laura, spent most of her life in a mental institution.
Munch himself was constantly ill and spent many winters off school convinced (wrongly, as it turned out) that his entire family was blighted by a genetic hereditary madness.
‘As childhoods go, the formative years of the late Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (pictured) sound utterly dismal’
Fear, madness and angst: Edvard Munch’s famous The Scream
Meanwhile, his father, a religiously zealous army doctor, whose ostentatious piety kept the family in genteel poverty, scared Edvard and his siblings witless with vivid ghost stories, and reminded them all that their dead mother was looking down from heaven and grieving over their bad behaviour.
‘My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious — to the point of psychoneurosis,’ Munch once wrote. ‘From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow and death stood by my side since the day I was born.’ It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see why Munch’s work, brilliant though it is, is rather heavier on despair and angst than sunshine and flowers.
But everyone has their own way of coping. Fuelled by his ‘angels of fear’, Munch’s response to the dark hand he’d been dealt was to ‘write his life’, and obsessively and cathartically paint everything — both physical and psychological — he had experienced.
So each illness, death, angst, trauma, medicine bottle, stethoscope and corpse he witnessed over nearly 80 years was recreated on canvas. And every seduction, jealousy and love affair (there were many) was logged — right down to each swirl of ghastly green wallpaper in the background, or crumpled bed sheet. Which meant that, when he died in 1944, he bequeathed to the City of Oslo an enormous — if not terribly uplifting — body of work, much of which has still not been seen by the public, let alone left Munch’s native Oslo.
There is currently only one painting by Munch in London. So how wonderful that yesterday, the British Museum announced a landmark Edvard Munch exhibition, featuring more than 80 of the artist’s finest pieces of work.
Edvard Munch and his girlfriend Tulla Larsen who he had a stormy relationship with
Along with prints ranging from the fearful to the shockingly erotic (his topless Madonna is framed by swimming sperm and a foetus), the show — the museum’s first ever dedicated to Munch — features a rare black-and-white lithograph version of The Scream.
His most famous creation, now one of the most recognisable and valuable paintings in the world, arose from one of the lowest of many low moments in Munch’s life.
The artist was a penniless young man on the cusp of a total mental breakdown when, walking with friends in Oslo one evening, he witnessed the event that inspired his 1893 masterpiece.
They were near Ekeberg Hill — close to both the asylum where his sister was incarcerated and a slaughter house, where the screams of dying animals mingled with cries of the mentally disturbed patients — when, suddenly, it was all too much for Munch, who was already, as he put it, feeling ‘stretched to the limit’ with nature ‘screaming in my blood’ and giving ‘up hope ever of being able to live again.’
That was the moment.
‘The sky turned red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired,’ he wrote.
‘Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black ford. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.’
And, presumably, duly rushed home to record it in his diary before the moment disappeared into the ether.
More than 125 years later, Munch’s portrait (or, more likely, self-portrait) of a contorted, hollow-mouthed, skull-like figure of angst and despair remains iconic.
He created five versions of the image — two paintings, two pastels and a lithograph — over a 27-year period.
One of the paintings, an 1895 pastel-on-board version of the work, owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record price of nearly $120 million in May 2012.
Two have been stolen. In February 1994, two men broke into the National Gallery, Oslo, and stole its version of The Scream, leaving a note reading: ‘Thanks for the poor security’.
Edvard Munch (standing to the right of his mother)aged 5 with his brothers and sisters
The exhibition, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, is at the British Museum from April 11– July 21, 2019. Prya, a member of Museum Staff, holds Self-Portrait, 1895 in front of the other works Edvard Munch
After the gallery refused to pay a $1 million ransom, it was recovered undamaged three months later.
Ten years later, the 1910 version of The Scream was stolen, but later retrieved, albeit badly damaged.
It is the lithograph print version that will be on display in London from April. It is thought Munch made only a small number of prints before the stone (which holds the pattern) was lost or ground down.
Since then, endless versions of the screaming skull-like figure have been used on greetings cards, mugs, T-shirts and calendars, in an advertising campaign for M&Ms, and on a series of postage stamps. There is even a ‘Scream’ emoji.
All of which is brilliant news, of course, for the Munch organisation, even if, like so many of his great works, it was inspired by despair.
Edvard Munch was born in a village near Kristiania (today’s Oslo) in 1863 to Christian Munch, a lowly-paid doctor and Laura, half his age when they married. After Laura died, Christian did his best, instructed his five children in history and literature and shipped in his sister, Karen, to help. But he was poorly paid and the stricken family were constantly on the move from one cheap flat to another as, even then, the young Munch was obsessively sketching — recording every interior and landscape in his early drawings and watercolours.
Aged 16, he went to a technical college to study engineering, but despite excelling at sciences, he jacked it in to become a painter, enrolling at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania to attempt to ‘use art to explain life and its meaning to myself’.
In 1883, he made his debut at the local Industry and Art Exhibition, went on to exhibit in Antwerp and study in Paris in his early 20s, and then established himself on the international scene, in more ways than just art.
Because, under the tutelage of philosopher, political activist and leader of the Norwegian ‘Boheme’ Hans Jæger, he embraced the bohemian lifestyle with a lusty passion.
He drank, he loved, he wooed many, many lovers and he painted like a mad thing — always adventurous, frequently pioneering, deeply influenced by contemporary ideas, thinkers and artists including Max Klinger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Henrik Ibsen.
In art he was invariably at the forefront, and happily ignored accepted fashions. He wasn’t afraid to work and rework an image, updating it over time like a series. (As well as five versions of The Scream, there are six versions of The Sick Child, seven versions of The Girl On The Bridge and the subject of the 1893 painting, Vampire, features in 11 more paintings).
Overflowing as they were with emotion, despair, angst, foreboding and death, works such as The Scream couldn’t have chimed less with the French Impressionism movement of the time, in which emotions were quashed and darkness was airbrushed out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for years Munch’s paintings were deeply unpopular.
It was the lithographs, with their own separate market for more discerning collectors, that eventually put him on the map and fired the demand for the paintings.
Though Munch embarked on countless relationships, he was loath to commit himself to one woman. He loved sex, adored brothels and once spent an entire Christmas in one, but was hopeless at relationships — believing himself unfit to father children.
Some believe a lingering hostility towards his mother for dying when he was a child was projected onto other women. Above all, he craved the solitude to paint.
Then, in 1898, he met an attractive, wealthy woman called Tulla Larsen, who became obsessed with him. He fled her advances, but she followed. When he refused to marry her, she threatened suicide.
On and off their relationship went for four years, until things came to a head in a bizarre shooting incident in which a revolver was discharged and he lost most of a finger on his left hand.
In the end, Tulla married one of his younger colleagues, while Munch nursed a grudge for years. He did, though, produce his famous series of paintings about love and death, entitled The Frieze Of Life, which debuted in Berlin in 1902.
Eventually, though, the consumption of far too much absinthe and wine, and the existence of far too little structure in his life, was too much for Munch’s fragile health and, in 1909, he suffered a major breakdown. After a course of electrotherapy and a recommendation not to drink in public any more, he embraced a much quieter, more solitary and, judging from some of his paintings of the time, less troubled life.
Unlike some artists, Munch was famous in his lifetime, though The Scream was not as renowned then as it has become today. He was well off, if not wealthy, having sold many works because he was so prolific. He owned two substantial properties when he died, but wasn’t especially interested in money and was careless with it.
He lived alone for decades alongside his beloved dogs and horses, but he remained connected to the modern world. He embraced photography and cinema with zeal, and his work went on to influence many artists during his lifetime and after his death.
Edvard Munch stood in the whorkshop of his Winter Studio at Ekely in Norway in 1938
The last 27 years of his life were largely spent on his farm near Oslo still obsessively painting — often self-portraits — even when his sight threatened to fail him completely after he suffered a haemorrhage in one good eye.
He was never quite able to reproduce the brilliance of the first troubled third of his career, but diligently he recorded every wrinkle and sunken cheek he saw in the mirror. And there he is preserved in painting after painting, sick with Spanish flu, drunk with empty bottles, ill and old and alone in a darkened house.
He never married, and always insisted his paintings were his real children — his conceptions, he called them. He hated to sell them, frequently painted copies or edited versions to keep when he did part with a piece, and disliked being separated from them.
When he died, aged 80, authorities discovered 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 woodcuts, etchings and lithographs, hidden away behind locked doors on the second floor of his house.
Munch’s life, stained as it was with illness, death and insanity, didn’t sound much fun, but it seemed to suit him. ‘My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm,’ he once wrote. But ‘without illness and anxiety, I would have been a ship without a rudder’.
- The exhibition, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, is at the British Museum from April 11– July 21, 2019.