The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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Love and Angst

“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

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Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, 1895

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.

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Hans Jaeger, 1896

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.

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August Strindberg, 1896

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).

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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).

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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.

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Eva Mudocci/The Brooch, 1903

“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.


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