Edvard Munch – A mind of his own

Norway * 1863-1944


Edvard Munch is born in Norway’s rural Løten in 1863 and named after his paternal grandfather, archdeacon and Court chaplain. His father Christian is an army physician, and married to the tubercular Laura Cathrine, who is 20 years his junior.  At age one, Edvard moves with his parents and his older sister Sofie to Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1925). His aunt Karen Bjølstad moves in with them as his mother is suffering from advanced consumption. The family celebrates Christmas in December 1868 but a few days after, his mother dies and Karen stays to raise the by-now five children and become a supporter to Edvard’s talents. The family moves again, this time to Grünerløkka, on the wrong side of the Akerselva River, which functions as an important class divider at the time. Edvard’s health remains fragile but he recovers from tubercular attacks. His sister Sofie on the other hand dies in November 1877, an event that would have a profound impact on Edvard.

Edvard Munch-The Sick Child-1886-1925

“The Sick Child” – Edvard Munch – (1886/1925)

He decides to become a painter and enrols in the Royal School of Design. In 1882 he is instructed by radical realist Christian Krohg and his earliest paintings of landscapes and portraits show him as a competent realist and naturalist painting. From the mid-1880s a new romantic trend would come to the fore and expression and mood become increasingly important. Munch’s early works show humble young women from the working classes – much like those produced by his teacher. In addition, he is influenced by Max Klinger, who tackles the subjects of love and death.

In the summer of 1885, Munch visits Antwerp and Paris and upon his return paints “The Sick Child”, now considered a pivotal work in his career. The painting shows a young girl dying of tuberculosis and is experimental in that the subject is shown in a hazy and almost dissolved form, exemplifying Munch’s “I paint not what I see but what I saw”. The painting proves to be a new experience for the conservative Norwegian public and Munch becomes the “enfant terrible” of Norwegian painting. He also meets his first love, a married woman referred to as “Mrs Heiberg” and goes from his religious upbringing to Oslo’s anti-bourgeois bohemia. He admires Hans Jæger, the uncompromising leader of the Christiania Bohemia, as well as Edouard Manet and Emile Zola.

Edvard Munch-The Scream-1893

“The Scream” – Edvard Much (1893)

In 1888, he applies for a scholarship to finish his training in Paris and exhibits more than 60 paintings in his first one-man exhibition, which includes “Music on Karl Johan Street”, a complex work, and a more academic version of “The Sick Child”. As a result, he is rewarded the Norwegian state scholarship for artists three years in a row. Following the death of his father, he explores the works of avant-garde painters Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas and experiments with impressionism, influenced by Claude Monet, producing the highlight of a “Night in St Cloud” in 1890. The psychological treatment of his work is also highlighted in “Melancholy” two years later and in the seminal “The Scream”, of which “Despair”, painted in 1892, is the precursor. The period also heralds Munch’s shift from realism to symbolism.

While Norway is the favourite flavour in Berlin and Munch’s Ibsen-type works generally catch the prevailing mood, Berlin is not ready for him with critics considering the works as “unfinished” and his paintings are taken down five days after the start of the exhibition. But he stays on in Berlin and explores the theme of the femme fatale as well as producing the legendary “The Scream”, a key work of expressionist painting. During this time he also paints important works such as “Starry Night”, “Vampire”, “Death in the Sickroom” and “Madonna”.

Edvard Munch-The Madonna-1894

“Madonna” – Edvard Munch (1894)

In 1895 he returns to Paris and focusses on printmaking and perfects his skills in mezzotint, lithography, intaglio and woodcuts. In the spring 1897 he exhibits at the Salon des Indépendants, who until then had paid little attention to Munch. The exhibition would be the precursor to “The Frieze of Life”, presented as a series some five years later.

In 1898 he meets the attractive and rich Tulla Larsen.  With her he travels to Paris, Berlin and Florence and starts a fateful affair, which ends in the summer of 1900. Munch’s work suffers but by winter, he produces some of his finest landscapes and one year later he paints “The Girls on the Bridge”, a much-cherished work.

In 1902 he is invited to participate at the Berlin Secession and would present his “Frieze of Life” for the first time in full. The 22 paintings are presented in four themes: Seeds of love, Love’s blossom and decay, Life’s anxiety and Death. While success becomes part of his life, so did tragedy as Tulla Larsen continues to haunt his mind. Moreover, alcoholism unravels him and sees him escape to Copenhagen for treatment. He returns to Norway and painting in 1909, providing the decoration for the new festival hall at The Royal Frederik University in Christiania. He completes the monumental works in 1916 after seven years. Meanwhile in 1912 the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, Germany, is a milestone in art history and considered the first comprehensive presentation of expressionism. Munch, with a room of his own, is recognised on a par with Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin.

In 1916 he settles in Ekely, on the outskirts of Christiania. In the last decade of his life, self-portraits provides a key theme and while in 1927 important exhibitions in Germany’s and Norway’s national galleries would confirm his status. However, in 1938 some 80 of his works are removed by the Nazi regime. In 1940 Norway is occupied by German troops and he fears for the safety of his works. A few days after his birthday, he develops pneumonia and as a result, he dies on 23 January 1944.