Edvard Munch – Fear, Illness and Fame

By Deena Sherman

Edvard Munch, best known for his painting, The Scream, was tormented by the tragedies of his childhood – and haunted by the demons of his mind.

Munch was born in the capital of Norway, Christiana (now called Oslo) in 1863. His father was a religious fanatic who earned a modest income as a doctor. His mother, 20 years his father’s junior, died of tuberculosis when Munch was only five. Tragedy struck in the Munch household again when Edvard was 14. His 15-year-old sister, Sophie, died – also of tuberculosis. Death later permeated Munch’s paintings, one of them is simply called: The Dead Mother.

The demons of Munch’s mind took the form of anxiety, depression and later close shaves with alcoholism. Another of Munch’s sisters, Laura, was considered mentally ill. Of five siblings, only one brother, Andreas, married – only to die soon after his wedding.

At 22, Munch left Norway for Paris. His art developed and so did his neurosis. He had a particularly difficult time with women whom he pursued relentlessly, but deeply mistrusted. His relationships often turned to hatred and even violence. His most passionate affair ended with the use of a gun and Munch injured his left thumb.

His artwork exploded and he became a pioneer in the Expressionist movement. Expressionism emphasizes inner emotions rather than outer realities. The artist uses exaggeration and distortion to achieve the emotional qualities in the work. Munch had all the ingredients – a tragic childhood, anxiety, depression and neurosis to make him an outstanding expressionist painter. He has influenced the artworld around the globe, but particularly in Germany, where he lived for a time after leaving Paris.

Munch painted the first of four versions of The Scream in 1893. One of these, which is worth millions, was stolen from a museum in Oslo in August and has not yet been recovered.

The figure in the foreground of The Scream has a fearful, shocked expression on a distorted face. The swirling, violent colors of the sky infuse the painting with a voice – a crying, shrieking scream. While it is unclear whether the subject of The Scream is a self-portrait, the painting is definitely autobiographical. Munch wrote in his diary how he came to paint it:

“I was walking along the street with two friends – the sun was going down – I felt a touch of melancholy. Suddenly the color of the sky changed to blood red. I stopped walking and leaned against a fence feeling tired to death – I saw the flaming clouds like bloodstained swords – the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on walking – I stood there trembling with fear – and I felt how a long unending scream was going through the whole of nature.”

By the time Munch died in 1944 his work was famous and he was wealthy and respected. Munch recognized that without the tragic past and without his mental anguish he would not have achieved genius in art. To this he wrote: “Without fear and illness, I could never have accomplished all I have.”

“Symbolism”, by Michael Gibson.
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