The giant shadow cast by Edvard Munch over his native Norway is hard to escape. His winter studio in Ekely, just outside Oslo, provides workspace for artists, and Olav Ringdal, who occupies the main room, is happy to show a group of visitors the toothy self-portraits he is preparing for an exhibition.
But, while he is grateful to be working in a space where Munch’s paintings were once stacked against the walls, Ringdal is ambivalent about being a Norwegian artist. “I wish I was from Holland because you have artists from the whole spectrum there,” he says. “In Norway there is only Munch.” Or as the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard puts it in an interview for the catalogue that accompanies a new Munch exhibition: “He is such a major figure in our culture that he seems to be everywhere.”
Munch’s most famous work is ubiquitous. The Scream is shorthand for raw horror, whether that be existential angst or the dismay of seeing someone embarrass themselves on YouTube. The Scream is an emoji, the source of a series of horror movies and the image that Peter Brookes, Times cartoonist, put on the face of every spectator at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Beyond that inescapable image, however, knowledge of Munch in Britain is limited. According to Giulia Bartrum, the curator of Edvard Munch: Love and Angst,our lack of familiarity with this pioneering modernist can be attributed to the meagre opportunities to see much of his prodigious output here. Only one of his paintings — The Sick Child, at the Tate Modern — is held by a British institution.
Munch was a passionate and industrious printmaker, and Bartrum has focused on the intaglios, lithographs and woodcuts that brought his work to a wider audience in Europe and the United States, where he was keenly collected. He began producing prints to spread his reputation, secure much-needed income and maintain a relationship with works he referred to as his ‘children’. Printmaking, he discovered, was hugely satisfying because it allowed him to keep reflecting on favourite themes. Munch did not want to create, as Bartrum explains, “pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls”, but “art created of one’s heart”. He obsessively reworked images that were based on moments from his often tormented life. “He was constantly revisiting and reiterating,” says Bartrum.
He was five when his mother died of tuberculosis and at thirteen he saw his older sister, Sophie, succumb to the same disease. Munch believed it was hereditary and led to insanity. “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” he declared. Another sister, Laura, would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised. His father was a pious military doctor, credited by Munch with bequeathing the seeds of madness. The Sick Child, depicting Sophie on her deathbed with a grieving woman sitting next to her, was the first of his ‘soul paintings’ and was later hailed the first expressionist work. He produced several versions over the decades. “He was recalling that memory of when his sister died. It was a memorial and a constant theme,” Bartrum says. The Tate’s version will be in the exhibition along with a lithograph that offers a close-up of the girl’s remarkably composed, bleakly resigned face.
As a young man, Munch fell in with a group of bohemian artists and writers. At their centre was Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who encouraged those under his sway to pursue free love, sever contact with their families and commit suicide. Munch didn’t comply, but the themes of love, jealousy, separation, anxiety, loneliness and death, which he explored in his Frieze of Life paintings, emerged from those bohemian days. His relationships with women were complicated. He had a serious affair with Milly Thaulow, a prominent (and married) society figure who eventually left him. Tulla Larsen, the daughter of a wealthy Norwegian wine merchant, whose long red hair appeared in many pictures, followed him around Europe. They were briefly engaged, but he was reluctant to commit and the relationship ended with a shot in a mysterious gun accident that left Munch’s left hand permanently damaged.
“Munch was briefly engaged, but he was reluctant to commit and the relationship ended with a shot in a mysterious gun accident that left his left hand permanently damaged.”
Munch never married or had children. “He was neurotic and did not want to tie himself to any woman,” Bartrum says. Some of his most powerful images were of femmes fatales, including several versions of his Madonna, in which a woman with a red halo is naked and in a state of ecstasy that has little to do with her relationship with God. The lithograph in the exhibition has a border depicting sperm and a foetus, which caused controversy even in the 1890s.
An image originally called Love and Pain was reworked numerous times to become known as his ‘vampire’ paintings and prints. Here a flame-haired woman (red was a popular symbol for sin) is either gently kissing her lover on the neck, or brutally sinking her fangs into him, depending on how you want to look at it. At the heart of the Frieze of Life is The Scream. Munch painted the world’s most famous articulation of primal dread four times and created a lithograph stone from which he printed a few dozen black-and-white prints, one of which will be in the exhibition. Munch was drawing on an experience he had when walking with friends on a hill above Oslo. As the sun set, the sky turned blood red and he was left “quaking with angst” and felt a “large scream pass through nature”. A version painted in pastel on cardboard in 1895 sold for $120 million at auction in 2012, then a record for a work of art. One of the lithographs — about twenty are thought to exist — sold in 2016 for $2.4 million. Bartrum explains more: “The black-and-white lithograph is sufficiently different from the pastel version of the painting to make you think he’s trying to find a different way of expressing that anxiety. It’s almost as though those rhythmic bands of black and white resonate like a wave that he can hear in nature.”
“It’s almost as though those rhythmic bands of black and white resonate like a wave that he can hear in nature.”
In 1908 Munch suffered a breakdown in which alcoholism played a big part. After a spell in a Danish clinic he returned to Norway and led a more settled life at Ekely. The exhibition’s focus is on the intense period, both in terms of printmaking and self-examination, of the fin de siècle. While Munch’s output after the breakdown included less introspective work, he produced the fourth Screampainting in 1910, and continued to re-explore dark times. In Self Portrait with a Bottle of Wine he appears to be drinking alone in a mortuary with waiters hovering like undertakers. So much work was hoarded at the estate that when he died in 1944, aged 80, he left 1,150 paintings and nearly 18,000 prints to the city of Oslo. From next year the Munch Museum will occupy a huge new thirteen-storey building on the Oslo harbourside close to a new National Gallery. Between them the two museums hold three Screams (the fourth is in private hands) and both have had one Scream stolen (and recovered).
Munch mini-breaks in Oslo may become the hottest Norwegian ticket since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer returned to Manchester United, but for now the fifty prints that the Munch Museum has lent the British Museum, and which comprise more than half of the exhibits, promise to whet the appetite. The exhibition has been long planned, so it is coincidental that it opens at the time of our national meltdown. If it wasn’t Brexit, no doubt we would be laughing at the exhibition’s timing in relation to another brain-frazzling story. “We live in Scream time: there is no space between us and the events in the world,” Knausgaard says. “They appear in front of us the second they take place . . . it is as if we live in The Scream.”
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is at the British Museum from 11th April to 21st July 2019.
DAMIEN WHITWORTH writes for The Times.
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This article has also been published in The Times.