“We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created by one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch, 1889
When Edvard Munch (1863-1944) produced The Scream in 1893, little did he know it would retain the international appeal it garnered, encapsulating a mood to which nearly everyone can relate. Dying a recluse at his estate in the suburbs of Oslo, Munch bequeathed the works in his studio to the city, which included 18,000 prints. The British Museum in London managed to acquire a mere 21 of Munch’s prints, however, the opportunity recently arose to borrow works from abroad to hold their first-ever exhibition about the Norwegian artist – the first exhibition solely about Munch since 1974.
Although Munch was also a painter, the British Museum’s exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst focused almost entirely on his print work, including lithographs and woodcuts. Having been born to a close-knit family on 12th December 1863 in Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925), Munch’s childhood was shattered after the death of his mother Laura Catherine Bjølstad from tuberculosis when he was only five years old. This left Munch, his older sister Johanne Sophie, and younger siblings Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie to be brought up by their father Doctor Christian Munch, the son of a priest.
The first print displayed in the exhibition is Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895), which he produced as a memento mori of his own mortality. Not only did Munch suffer through the death of his mother, but his sister (Johanne) Sophie also died from tuberculosis when he was thirteen years old. It is primarily due to these two tragic instances that Munch began to produce artwork with the intention of expressing his deep, painful emotions.
Whilst Munch’s father was a loving, kind man, he was deeply pious and the conservative teachings of the Lutheran church dominated much of his life. “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him, I inherited the seeds of madness.” As a result, Munch wanted to escape from this type of lifestyle. Firstly, in 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. Whilst he excelled at maths, chemistry and physics, Munch left the college after a year with the determination to become a painter. In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch; nonetheless, his father disapproved.
One thing that particularly upset Munch’s father was his relationship with the local nihilist Hans Jaeger (1854-1910). As a writer, philosopher and political activist, Jaeger was the central figure of the Kristiania bohemians with whom Munch became affiliated. Despite being jailed for blasphemy in 1885, Jaeger wrote the book From the Kristiania Bohemians, which greatly influenced the young Munch, helping him to develop a highly subjective expressionistic art style.
Munch briefly studied in Paris in 1885 and again in 1889, where he was influenced by several contemporary French artists. These included Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Unfortunately, Munch’s father died in December 1889 and Munch, destitute, was forced to temporarily move back home.
The British Museum used Munch’s prints of Kristiania Bohemians II (1895) as examples of the etching and drypoint technique Munch used during the 1880s. The image reveals the smoky interior of the Grand Café in Kristiania where Munch used to meet various writers and artists, including Hans Jaeger, who can be seen at the far end of the table. Etchings are usually created by drawing on a metal plate covered in acid-resistant wax with a needlepoint. The plate is then immersed in acid, which “bites” into the metal along the exposed scratched lines. Alternatively, Munch scratched directly onto the metal plate, a technique that is known as “drypoint”. Either way, the plate can then be inked, covered with dampened paper and passed through a printing press to produce a print of the design etched onto the metal. This can be used again and again to create several copies of the same image.
Another technique Munch utilised was woodcut. An example of this style is Munch’s Head by Head (1905), which he initially printed in black and white. To produce a woodcut, the artist has to cut into a block of wood with a chisel so that the raised surfaces can be inked to create a print – similar to how a rubber stamp works today. As shown at the British Museum, Munch often used different coloured inks on his woodcuts. This can be done by carefully applying various shades of ink to particular sections of the block. Munch also took a more unconventional approach and sawed up the woodblock so that the various sections could be inked separately before being reassembled like a jigsaw to create the final print.
In 1892, Munch was invited to put on an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin. His work, however, horrified the traditional art world and the exhibition was closed after a week. Fortunately, the younger, avant-garde artists were impressed with his style and the scandal, instead of ruining him, helped to launch Munch’s international career. As a result, Munch opted to stay in Berlin where he made use of their many traditional printing establishments.
Whilst in Berlin, Munch met intellectuals from all over Europe, the majority of whom met in the Black Piglet bar to debate about art, love, science and philosophy. They also discussed the concept of the death of God, an idea that was radical and shocking at the time. Amongst these thinkers was August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright (1849-1912) who Munch painted in 1892. Unfortunately, their friendship began to drift after Strindberg wrote a satirical review of an exhibition of Munch’s work in Paris. To get his own back, when Munch produced a print of his painting in 1896, he added the deliberately misspelt name “A. Stindberg”, which is a play on words meaning “mountain of hot air.” The naked woman in the border of the print alludes to Strindberg’s growing paranoia and bouts of hallucinations.
The works that unsettled the mainstream art world belonged to a cycle Munch titled Frieze of Life. These artworks were produced over several years and encompassed themes such as love, jealousy, anxiety and death.
“The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death.”
– Edvard Munch, 1918
Some of Munch’s Frieze of Life recalls his first love affair with a married woman, Milly Thaulow. The affair took place during summer visits to the Norwegian coastal town of Åsgårdstrand. As a result, many of Munch’s romantic or angst-ridden artworks feature the shoreline in the background. “I get so inspired to paint when I am here”.
When talking about his print Separation II (1896), Munch stated that he “symbolised the connection between the separated couple with the help of long wavy hair.” This represents a “kind of telephone wire.” Perhaps this metaphor relates to Munch and Thaulow who could only meet in the summer and were, therefore, separated throughout the rest of the year.
During his career, Munch was obsessed with and afraid of female power, resulting in numerous affairs but no marriage. In 1898, Munch entered a relationship with Tulla Larsen, an upper-class woman, who was eager for marriage, however, Munch deliberately dodged the proposals. At the same time, Munch was struggling with alcoholism and poor health, which enhanced his fears about commitment. In 1900, he fled from Tulla to Berlin, however, the couple briefly reconciled a little later. The end of their relationship came about after Munch’s self-destructive and unpredictable behaviour involved him in a violent quarrel with another artist, followed by an accidental shooting in the presence of Tulla, which damaged two of Munch’s fingers.
In Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair (1896), Munch used the woman’s hair to represent his fears of female entrapment. The woman’s hair, which in this print is coloured red, surrounds the head of the man, symbolising that he has been ensnared in his love with the woman. Perhaps his thoughts have been clouded due to emotion, thus preventing him from avoiding a relationship or marriage.
“Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.”
– Edvard Munch, speaking about himself
Two Human Beings, the Lonely Ones (1899) is a woodcut that Munch produced using his jigsaw technique so that he could ink each section separately. As a result, each element of the print – the woman, the man and the sea – has a white border, highlighting Munch’s solitary mood. Although he may be with a woman, Munch deliberately distances himself from commitment and a steady relationship.
For Munch, his constant state of separation and isolation led to an increasing feeling of anguish. It was this strong emotion that led Munch to produce his legendary painting The Scream in 1893. The artwork first appeared in an exhibition in Berlin titled Life Anxiety. Two years later, Munch produced a print of the painting, adding the title “Geschrei” (Scream) followed by the German words “Ich fühlte das grosse Geschrei durch die Natur” (I felt the large scream pass through nature).
The Scream became the centre of Munch’s Frieze of Life series and quickly became his most well-known work. Munch produced two paintings of the artwork, two pastel versions and several prints, all of which have been widely coveted. In 2012, one of the pastels became one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold when it went for £74 million during an auction at Sotheby’s.
To make the prints, Munch used a technique called lithography, which relies on the fact that grease and water do not mix. The image is drawn on a flat stone with a wax crayon, which is then dampened by water. The waxy area repels the water and when ink is applied, it adheres to the drawn image and avoids the damp areas. A piece of paper is then placed upon the stone and passed through a press to transfer the image.
Much to Munch’s annoyance, The Scream has been misinterpreted by the majority of viewers who automatically assume the open-mouthed figure is screaming. Munch originally intended to title the painting The Scream of Nature before settling for the shorter name. Munch claims the titular scream comes from the surroundings and not the person. The person is attempting to block out the shriek they can hear (the Norwegian title is Shrik).
Although generally believed to be a man, the figure in The Scream is featureless and genderless, thus de-individualised, which has helped it to become a universal symbol of anxiety in the 21st century. The Scream has recently been turned into an emoji for use on social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and so forth. It has also found itself in Pop Art and popular culture, for instance, works by Andy Warhol (1928-87) and Peter Brooks (b. 1943) and has recently been replicated on new Pokémon trading cards.
“The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
– Edvard Munch
One of the strongest themes in Munch’s work is sickness and death. Munch’s life began with the death of his mother but it was the death of his sister Sophie when he was only 13 that haunted him for the rest of his life. He directed the emotions tied up with this experience into his large painting The Sick Child, which was on loan to the British Museum from the Tate Modern. Tuberculosis was a common illness during Munch’s life, however, the rapidly industrialised cities had no means to tackle it. Munch witnessed people like his father resorting to prayer in an effort to save lives, which in the case of Sophie was futile.
Munch also suffered from ill health as a child and grew up to believe that tuberculosis and mental illness was a fact of life. His sister Laura was institutionalised in 1894 with schizophrenia and, later, Munch suffered a number of mental breakdowns. Nonetheless, Munch wrote that he would not wish himself free of mental illness “because there’s so much in my art that I owe to it.”
“In The Sick Child I paved new roads for myself – it was a breakthrough in my art. – Most of what I have done since had its genesis in this picture. No painting in Norway has elicited such a scandal.”
– Edvard Munch, Origins of the Frieze of Life, 1928
It took Munch a year to complete the oil painting The Sick Child, which recalls the death of his sister Sophie. The woman seated beside Sophie’s bed is Munch’s aunt, Karen Bjølstad who had looked after the Munch siblings since the death of their mother in 1868. Unfortunately, when the painting was displayed at the Berlin Artists’ Association in November 1892, it was criticised for its rough appearance, however, once again the negative press gave Munch the much-needed publicity.
Munch believed that he had experienced more than his fair share of grief and produced several works on the same subject. In fact, his oil painting of The Sick Child was the fourth of six images in a series of the same name. Munch created a dry point of The Sick Child from which he produced ten signed prints. Despite being black and white, the child’s face still appears drained of colour as the life ebbs away.
The Sick Child I is a lithograph based upon the head and shoulders of the child in the previous print. Munch produced several stones of the same image and had them printed in different colours, for instance, yellow, pink and red.
“All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood.”
– Edvard Munch
At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was beginning to assert itself with modernity, hosting The World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 and inaugurating the newly built Eiffel Tower. It was a time when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was changing the way mental disorders were treated, Marie Curie (1867-1934) was discovering radioactivity and new experiments were occurring in film, art, dance and theatre. Munch was swept up by the hype of Parisian artists who were embracing coloured printmaking and working alongside the groundbreaking experimental theatre.
“Fraulein Mudocci is wonderfully beautiful and I almost fear I am falling in love …” Eva Mudocci was both a friend, muse and short term lover of Munch. She was a famous violinist at the time Munch was in Paris and he produced a print titled The Brooch based on her appearance.
Mudocci was not the only well-known name with whom Munch associated. Munch had already befriended and unfriended Strindberg but was also in contact with other contemporary playwrights. Scandinavian dramatists were beginning to take precedence in the experimental theatre world and they relied upon avant-garde artists to design stage sets, posters and programme covers. Artists included Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and, of course, Munch himself.
Munch felt an affinity with the Norweigan playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) whose plays, like his own work, shocked bourgeois society. They challenged social and moral conventions with themes of adultery, hypocrisy, mental illness and diseases, such as syphilis. Munch said of the audiences’ reaction, “Ibsen threw a huge log into the anthill.”
Munch initially met Ibsen whilst back home in Kristiania where the elderly playwright lived in a self-imposed exile. Whilst Munch admired the older gentleman, Ibsen saw a bit of himself in the artist. He warned Munch, “Believe you me – you will have the same fate as I – the more enemies, the more friends.”
Munch designed programme covers for at least two of Ibsen’s plays, John Gabriel Borkman and Peer Gynt. He also designed the set for Ibsen’s Ghosts in 1906. Ibsen had passed away earlier that year and in his honour, Munch was asked to design the sets for a performance at the Kammerspiele, which had recently opened in Berlin. In some ways, Munch associated Ghosts with events of his only family life, particularly the deaths of his mother and sister, and he used these personal memories as visual aids when creating the stage set.
Despite living to the age of 80, Munch remained emotionally attached to his family and homeland all his life. Although he had tried to escape from his life as a young adult, he was constantly drawn back to Kristiania, especially the village of Åsgårdstrand, which, as already mentioned, features as a backdrop in many of his works. “To walk around here is like walking among my pictures.”
In 1908, Munch was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen due to acute alcoholism and an anxiety-driven nervous breakdown. He eventually returned to Norway in 1909 but his style of art had undergone a radical change. Rather than concentrating on past events, love and angst, Munch focused more on Norwegian landscapes and daily life. In 1916, Munch settled in Ekely on the outskirts of the capital where he remained until his death in 1944.
Although the exhibition only focused on prints, Edvard Munch: Love and Angst managed to explore the artistic development and powerful intensity of Munch’s work. Throughout his career, Munch received mixed reactions. Whilst the traditional art world rejected him, there were plenty of bohemian artists to encourage and support his more outspoken work.
“We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”
– Edvard Munch
Until the end of the 19th century, Munch had little financial success. Ironically, it was the outraged reaction of art critics that gave Munch the recognition he needed to become successful in the contemporary art world. A report in the Frankfurter Zeitung about his 1892 exhibition in Berlin exclaimed, “Art is endangered! All true believers raise a great lament! … An Impressionist, and a mad one at that, has broken into the herd of our fine solidly bourgeois artists. An absolutely furious character.”
It is difficult to judge the quality of Munch’s work, particularly as it is impossible to determine what is good and what is not in modern art. Most of the time it is a matter of personal taste. The fact that prints can be replicated several times makes each one feel less personal in comparison to a unique painting, however, Munch’s life story reveals the underlying emotion in each artwork. Just because it was possible to make several copies does not make the image any less meaningful. Seeing a print of The Scream is just as emotionally intense as seeing one of the painted versions.
The British Museum’s exhibition was scheduled to finish at the end of June but has been extended until 21st July. It has hopefully awakened a new interest in the work and life of Edvard Munch. Most people are familiar with The Scream but knowing the artist’s history makes it all the more powerful.
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst has been developed in collaboration with the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Ticket prices are £17 but under-16s can visit for free.
My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: Anchor, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify.
If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!