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Edvard Munch: A shout for art
01 December 2003

Munch Edvard (1863-1944)Nationality: NorwegianActivity: Painter and engraver

The son of a doctor who mostly took care of the poor during his career, Edvard Munch lost his mother when aged five. Receiving a Puritan education, he also was much marked by the death of two of his sisters and spent his youth under the spell of despair and illness.

Unable to get rid of morbid feelings, he studied painting under Heyerdahl in Oslo from 1880 until 1884 and frequented the studio of Christian Krogh. In 1885 he stayed in Paris during three weeks and was much impressed by the works of Impressionist artists.

Back in Norway he befriended the poet Han Jäger and professed revolutionary ideas in turning against injustice, Puritanism and conventions adopting a stand that he later exhaled in his works.

In 1889, he discovered the sea at Aasgaardstrand and sensed the expressive possibilities of landscape painting. He showed his works for the first time in Oslo and despite receiving a lukewarm welcome from the public he was awarded a State grant that enabled him to visit Paris again during the winter of1889-90. While studying under Léon Bonnat at the School of Beaux-Arts there he soon preferred to work alone and to attend exhibitions where he could admire the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat or Van Gogh as well as Japanese prints

He returned to Oslo after a brief stay in Germany and then became conscious that painting was not only a kind of acknowledgement but rather a way to express one's inner feelings or, regarding himself, a mean to exorcise his anguish and his fears as well as his attitude towards women and death.

He visited France again in 1891 and Italy where he painted divisionist (with dots) works before adopting his own language with his “Karl Johans Gate” of 1892 and his famous “The Shout” a year later. He thus used colours as a means of expression with symbolist rhythmic lines to exhale his feelings and his conception of the world.

In 1892, he showed in Oslo the first parts of his “Frieze of life” and went on to work on this series until his death. The same year he was invited by the Berlin Association of Painters to show 57 of his paintings in the main room of their exhibition at the “Architektenhaus” but the public reacted so violently that the exhibition had to be postponed.

Munch found a place where he could continue to show his works but his initiative prompted adverse reactions in the press to such an extent that such campaign suddenly made him famous in Germany, where he later was considered as a pioneer of Expressionism.

Closely linked with Strindberg and the poets Bierbaum, Dehmel, Holz and Przybyszewski, he started from 1894 to produce engravings, mostly based on his paintings and his prints, even more expressive than his oils, made him known throughout Europe.

In Berlin, he worked for the “Pan” magazine and during a stay in Paris in 1895-96 he learned the techniques of lithography with Lautrec's printer. He also created the decors of Ibsen's play “Peer Gynt” for the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre and showed his works at an exhibition of the “Art Nouveau” before producing his first woodcuts. The following year, he exhibited parts of his “Frieze of life” at the Salon des Indépendants and took an active part in the debates within the Nabi group.

From 1898 until 1901 he stayed mostly in Germany where he suffered bouts of mental disorder aggravated by financial problems. His friend, the oculist Max Linde, enabled him to paint portraits in order to survive and commissioned him to produce another version of his “Frieze of life”. In 1902, he produced an album of etchings and lithographs titled “Aus dem Hause Linde” (Around the Linde House” and exhibited 28 paintings at the exhibition of the Secession group in Berlin. He completed his second series of the “Frieze of life” but Linde's sudden refusal forced him to sell his works separately.

In 1906 he stayed in Weimar where he painted some portraits, including that of Nietzsche and embarked on producing a third series of the “Frieze of life” for the “Kammerspiele” theatre in Berlin. Two years later he suffered from a severe mental illness that forced him to be treated in a clinic in Copenhagen.

Though cured he seemed to have lost most of his genius as his works produced before 1908 had been much marked by his anguish and psychotic obsessions. Mixing fantasy and reality they materialised the mysterious forces of the universe into hallucinated figures smashed by the fear of loneliness and the anguish of death where women, far from representing a heaven symbolised death. His work “The Kiss” prompted Strindberg to say that it represented the fusion of two human beings, the smallest having the form of a carp being ready to swallow the bigger one according to the habit of vermin, microbes, vampires and women.

Cured, Munch lost touch with the dark side of the world he used to represent. Instead he returned to Norway for good and painted murals infused with serene scenes for the Oslo University showing workers and peasants more concerned by their living conditions than by sheer anguish. He lived in Ramme near Hvitsen, in the Oslo fjord, and continued to produce decorative paintings. In 1916, he bought a manor house in Ekely near Oslo and arranged not less than 43 studios there. Between 1920 and 1922 he travelled to Berlin, Paris and Italy while a major exhibition of his works took place in Zurich. In 1937, his paintings were classified as “degenerate” by the Nazis in Germany, a decision that affected him much.

In April 1940, the German army invaded Norway and Much refused to become a member of an Art Council of Honour created by the Quisling government. He preferred instead to live as a solitary man until his death in Ekely.

Art historians have placed Munch on a pedestal for his achievements until 1908 as he surely played a major role in the emergence of German Expressionism beside infusing a high degree of psychology in painting notably after professing in 1889 that the need to show living people breathing, feeling, suffering and loving was above all prevalent in art while showing exteriors, people reading or women knitting was obsolete.

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