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The compulsive subjectivity of Edvard Munch.

OF all paintings, the paintings of the nineteenth century Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, are the antitheses of accepted Anglo-Saxon artistic taste. Not for us the revelation of tormented relationships set down for all to see, the hysteria of sorrow made plain. It is all too explicit, too autobiographical. Yet Munch is by far Norway's most famous painter. It always amazed me that Francis Bacon, his equal in depicting human anguish, and in my opinion the greatest British painter this century, found fame in this country, while Munch is largely unknown.

Munch's paintings, now being shown in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London, were a passionate denial of everything that had been accepted as a picture at all. They abnegated the sensible world. The public of his day wished the painter to express only what he saw; Munch retorts vehemently that he does paint only what he sees. On this point there was continual indignation for of course when one speaks of 'seeing', everyone means something totally different.

In his essay, Literature and Revolution, in 1923, Leon Trotsky wrote: 'It is not to be argued that the separation of art from other aspects of social life was the result of the class structure of society'. Nowhere was this more true than in the Norway of the late nineteenth century. Munch was unique at the time: his comparative wealth made that separation of no consequence.

Some years ago in the National Gallery of Art in Oslo I admired the works of four or five marvellous artists, all contemporaries or friends of Munch. Why had one never heard of them? I learned that artists were not highly regarded in Norway at that time; their works did not sell; they were forced to turn elsewhere to make a living. Munch's prosperity allowed him to devote himself to painting and his output was prodigious. When he died he left one thousand oil paintings to the Munch Museum in Oslo, over fifteen thousand prints and more than four thousand water-colours and drawings. His city is pervaded by reproductions of his works to an extent I have never experienced elsewhere.

Edvard Munch was born in Loten, near Oslo in 1863. His childhood was traumatic. His father was dementedly pious and his mother and eldest sister died of consumption while he was still young. 'Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle,' he wrote. His obsession with these tragic events found recurring expression in such paintings as 'The Sick Child,' 'The Room of Death' and 'The Dead Mother'.

His painting career began conventionally enough at the School of Arts and Crafts in Oslo, but by 1884 he evinced ideas on ethics and sexual morality far in advance of their time. In the Paris of 1885 he had his first encounter with the work of the Impressionists and the Symbolist paintings of Gauguin and his non-naturalistic colours. Gauguin was then living in Brittany prior to leaving for Tahiti; Monet would shortly begin his famous series paintings of haystacks, Cathedrals et al. From 1889 to 1891 Munch attended Leon Bonnat's art school in Paris and then went to Germany. From 1892 until 1908 he made his base in Berlin.

In that first year he exhibited over fifty paintings at the Verein Berliner Kunstler (Artists' Union of Berlin). The exhibition caused such an uproar that it was closed within the week. This success de scandale made him famous and these works, forerunners of Expressionism were to influence many German artists. In protest against the closure, Max Liebermann, Ludwig von Hofmann, Curt Herrmann and their friends formed Gruppe XI in 1892. Six years later this gave way to the founding of the Berlin Secession, while in Austria Gustav Klimt started the Vienna Secession.

Soon after this cataclismic event Munch began his major work, the cycle of paintings he called 'The Frieze of Life'. It occupied him from 1893 to 1906. Explaining it, he wrote: 'It will have love and death as its subject matter ... These paintings are moods, impressions of life of the soul, and together they represent one aspect of the battle between man and woman, called love'.

A number of the paintings explicitly reflect the personal angst of his unhappy love life, none more so than 'Jealousy', painted in 1895. It shows a nude woman in an open red robe about to pluck a red apple from a tree. Beside her a fully clothed man, Munch himself, stands in an attitude of supplication, like Adam and Eve. In the foreground a man's face stares from the shadows with an expression of anxious melancholy.

In a Berlin beer hall in 1893 Munch had been introduced to Dagny Juell, a Norwegian student, whose sexual magnetism and belief in free love caused intense rivalry between, among others, Munch, Strindberg and the Polish poet, Przybyszewski, whom she married. It is generally thought that this picture, in which sexual passion is symbolized by the red of the woman's robe and the forbidden apples, represents the three-cornered relationship among Dagny, Munch and Przybyszewski. The painting inspired a prose poem by Strindberg which began: 'Jealousy, sacred feeling of spiritual purity, which abhors the idea of mingling itself through an intermediary, with another of the same sex ...'.

The subject obviously haunted Munch. The seductive attributes of this woman and her rejection of Munch can be read also into the painting 'Ashes'. In the foreground a crouching man holds his head in his hands in a gesture of despair. Behind him stands the same red-haired woman, her dress and hair in disarray, her arms aloft in a gesture of destructive sexuality. In the foreground a log has turned to ashes creating a grey haze, symbolic of dying love. (When exhibited at the Berlin Secession in 1902 this painting was called 'After the Fall', suggesting the period of remorse after sexual passion and biblical admonishment.)

Munch broke with conventional viewing habits engendered by the perspective representation of space in a manner that shook the spectators' feeling of security. In both 'Jealousy' and 'Ashes' the perspective is tilted so that the figures, disposed in planes parallel to the frame, seem unnaturally close to the observer, yet not close to each other. The asymmetric composition and trick of separating the figures into unconnected planes makes one conscious of the atmosphere surrounding them, very often in terms of almost tangible silence.

Nowhere are these elemental means more powerfully conveyed than in Munch's most famous work, 'The Scream', a silent shriek of terror which has entered the public imagination as a universal symbol of anguish. Part of the powerful impact of Expressionism was due to the fact that it eschewed beauty: in 'The Scream' all lines lead towards the main focus of the image -- the shouting head. The staring eyes and the hollow cheeks recall a death's head. Every line of the scenery seems to share the anguish of that shout. We know something terrible has happened and are disturbed because we will never know what that terrible something is.

About 'The Scream' Munch wrote: 'One evening I was walking along a path -- on one side lay the city and below me the fjord, I was tired and ill -- I stopped and looked out across the fjord -- the sun was setting -- the clouds were dyed red like blood. I felt a scream pass through nature; it seemed to me that I could hear the scream. I painted this picture -- painted the clouds as real blood. The colours were screaming -- this became the picture from 'The Frieze of Life'.

When reviewing a new book, The Fin-de-Siecle Culture of Adolescence, by Jack Newbauer, Jackie Wullschlager wrote: 'The portrait of the emaciated girl with frightened eyes staring out of Munch's 'Puberty' (1894) is a landmark in the painterly treatment of adolescence. The pain of transition, the embarrassed girl hiding her body, the dark shadow behind her symbolizing male sexuality, all themes which Kirchner, Kokoschka, Heckel and other Expressionists developed are there'. The atmosphere created by the strange dramatic light makes this picture additionally disquieting, emphasising the haunting image of awakening womanhood.

It is amusing to compare this interpretation with Gauguin's almost simultaneous portrait, of 'Anna the Javanese' (1893/4) who, at the age of thirteen, was already the complete carnal goddess. She became Gauguin's constant companion and mistress whom he flaunted round Paris in order to shock. Yet the very frankness of her nude portrait is not so disturbing as Munch's young model, nor as distasteful as the modern adolescents so beloved by Balthus.

Munch must be classed one of the supreme graphic artists of his or any other time. Today his prints are only for the very rich. In November 1988 a lithograph of 'The Scream' sold for |pounds~298,000 at Christie's in London and one of 'Madonna' fetched $616,000 in New York in 1990. 'Madonna' exemplified Munch's romanticism, a passionate portrayal of yielding womanhood within a field of magnetic emotion defined by her flowing feminine hair -- Munch's ubiquitous symbol. It could be argued that Munch achieved greater force and clarity in his prints than he did in his paintings.

I have tried to convey that Munch's art was always neurotic and frequently hysterical. His amorous attachments invariably ended badly; he suffered from claustrophobia; he drank too much. As one can deduce from his 'Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle' (1906) with its flaming colours and threatening convergence of space, this is a tortured self-image. In 1908 he suffered what he called 'a complete mental collapse'. Yet he realized that his mental instability was part of his genius; 'I would not cast off my illness', he wrote, 'for there is much in my art that I owe to it'. Nevertheless he must have been an interesting companion. He counted among his friends Strindberg, Ibsen, Stephane Mallarme, Thadee Natanson, the owner of 'La Revue Blanche', and the English composer, Delius. Another was Dr. Daniel Jacobson and he committed himself to his clinic for almost a year.

After his breakdown, Jappe Nilssen, an influential Norwegian art critic persuaded Munch to settle in Norway. From 1909 to 1911 he painted a series of three immense and several smaller murals for Oslo University, and twelve panels for the workers dining room in a chocolate factory in Oslo. He still visited Paris, Germany and Italy and exhibited widely, including the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913. In 1937 eighty-two of his works in German museums were branded 'Degenerate Art' by the Nazis and removed. Munch continued to live quietly in his house at Skoyen during the war, and died there in 1944.

Munch's art was the first to make subjectivity absolutely paramount in determining both form and colour. His unique quality was his capacity to imbue an available vocabulary with intense veracity and a pulsating reality. With 'The Scream' he enlarged artistic language in an entirely new and original way.
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Author:Julius, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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