The Scream by Norway’s Edvard Munch is so famous that an emoji was invented for it, aptly conveying all things horrific and scary when a word simply won’t do. But there’s much more to Munch than his shrieking masterpiece, and to prove it, the British Museum has put together its first show dedicated to the Norwegian master. It’s a formidable collection of 83 works, and as you hang out with each of Munch’s paintings and prints, it becomes quite clear that he lived with a good deal of love and a heck of a lot of angst.
Jealousy, loneliness, melancholy, isolation, love, death… these are the themes which take centre stage in Munch’s works. It’s not surprising given the life he led. Born in 1863, Munch grew up in Kristiania (Oslo), governed by a deeply religious father. Peppered with ill-health and tragedy, Munch lost his mother when he was five and his sister when he was 13. Munch was convinced that he had inherited the “seeds of madness” from his obsessively-religious father. His other sister would spend most of her life in an asylum, and Munch would spend much of his drowning in absinthe and in the fear of syphilis and mental illness.
Munch would produce over 1000 paintings, 4500 drawings and 15,000 prints, most of which were donated to the Norwegian government. He struggled to make just one version of a piece, referring to works as his children. As soon as one would “leave” him, a new one would be born in its place.
In The Sick Child, Munch’s aunt kneels in despair at the bedside of his beloved sister, Sophie. “Few painters have ever experienced the full grief of their subject as I did in the Sick Child.”
Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm is one of Munch’s earliest prints. The skeleton arm is a reference to his own mortality, a theme which would rear its symbolist head up again and again in Munch’s works.
Munch first met fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, in Kristiania in 1893, and personally toured the playwright around one of his exhibitions. Ibsen went on to say: “Believe me, you will have the same fate as I. The more enemies, the more friends.” In 1906 and shortly after Ibsen’s death, the director Max Reinhardt asked Munch to design the set for his production of Ghosts. Munch looked to his own tragic life when he came up with the designs, saying: “I and all my family, starting with my mother, have sat in the same chair…we sat there winter in and winter out, yearning for the sun.”
Madonna, bordered by a foetus and a sperm, would become one of Munch’s most scandalous paintings. It features Dagny Juel, the niece of Norway’s prime minister. Munch was intoxicated by her, and she would model for several of his paintings. She would go on to marry the writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski (his mistress with whom he had three children would gas herself shortly after). Munch would say of this image: “Woman in a state of surrender – where she acquires the afflicted beauty of a Madonna.”
The Przybyszewski-Juel-Munch love triangle features in Jealousy II. First printed in Paris, this version was made in 1906, by which time Przybyszewski had left Juel. She would eventually be murdered by a jealous admirer.
“She had bowed her head over mine – her blood-red hair had entangled me – coiled itself around me like blood-red snakes.” Originally called Love and Pain, this sensational piece was renamed Vampire II by Przybyszewski (Dracula was still a twinkle in Bram Stoker’s eye when this painting was made.) Munch would go on to make six painted versions of the subject. One version of this painting would be stolen from the Munch Museum in 1988, but was later recovered. In 2008, a Sotheby’s auction would fetch 38.2 million dollars for the 1894 version, setting the world record for a Munch painting (it’s since been superseded by $120 million for The Scream).
Munch’s relationship with his fiancée, Tulla Larsen, would be a stormy one. By all accounts, Larsen was a bit of a stalker, chasing Munch all over Europe. He eventually surrendered to her, but he refused to marry. During an argument with her in 1902, Munch accidentally shot himself in the hand. When the relationship ended, he sliced this painting of the two of them in half. He has been reunited with his ex at the British Museum, I can only imagine to his great displeasure.
Munch would make five original versions of The Scream. Thanks to an inscription on the 1895 print, we know that Munch’s “shriek” came from his environs. Munch noted “I felt a large scream pass through nature,” and gave it the original title The Scream of Nature. As I gaze at Munch’s masterpiece, I can’t help but think how one of the most famous paintings of all times so aptly describes the world we’re living in right now. From Brexit to Trump and everything in-between, Munch must be covering his ears in total horror right now.
Edvard Munch: love and angst is on at the British Museum from 11 April to 21 July 2019.