“For a long time he had been wanting to paint the effect of a sunset. Red as blood. No, it was blood itself. Nobody else had seen the sunset he had seen. Everyone else saw red clouds. He spoke sadly of how seized he had been by terror when he had seen this sunset of blood. Sad because the poor medium of paint could never convey the intensity of his vision. I thought, ‘He is trying to do the impossible, and his religion is despair.” Christian Skredsvig, on Munch
Edvard Munch, like Poe and Mary Shelley, survived an early life dominated by poverty and death, narrowly dodging the grim spectre himself on several occasions. Munch carried with him into adulthood a steely intellectual focus and the vision of expressing himself through “soul paintings.” Initially reviled during his lifetime, he eventually found acclaim as the spiritual godfather of the Expresssionists.
“Anxiety” (above) is one of a series of paintings with a similar construction, which includes the very familiar “The Scream.” Here, Munch populates his blood sunset with ghostly figures filing along the water’s edge, all in the grip of some nameless terror.
“Melancholy (Laura)” (below) is a portrait of his sister, deep in the grips of insanity. Munch feared, with some justification, that infirmity and madness ran deep in his family, so much so that he took care all his life to avoid fathering any offspring that might carry his tainted blood. This fear also led to the failure many of his relationships which, in turn, fed his art.
“Dead Mother and Child” (bottom) illustrates another episode from his life, the death of his mother and the horrified reaction of his beloved sister Sophie, who would herself die a few years later.
Munch’s work was not all obsessed with death and madness. Some of his most admired works were simple landscapes or portraits commissioned by wealthy patrons. But the core of his work, the material he poured more of his life force into, were the paintings that were grouped as “The Frieze of Life.” Assembled in different arrangements over the years in different exhibitions, the series of paintings blended themes of sex, love, jealousy, betrayal, bitterness, and death on a scale never previously attempted.
As one of the first proponents of psychological depth in art, Munch channeled his own trauma, fears, and tragedy with an honesty and integrity that keeps his works vital today. It was this quality that translated directly over into Expressionism, which moved art from studied pictorialism to personal, emotive expression.
Despite all the personal tragedy in his life, Munch persevered and remained true to his art. This is what I find most appealing about him, how he maintained his integrity as an artist throughout his life, expressing complex, deep and sometimes dark emotions without surrendering to his personal demons. Unlike Poe or Van Gogh before him, Munch lived to a ripe and productive old age, continuing to pursue “soul painting” to the end.