Edvard Munch was the most prominent figure of Expressionism movement. He was a prolific artist, with skills that encompass oil painting and printmaking. Although he had a successful career, he never had it easy in life as he was constantly troubled by matters involving sexual liberation, diseases and spiritual issues. These perpetual problems of his became a great source of inspiration for his expressionism, and it elicited strong emotions which he expressed in intense colors and semi-abstract styles.
Munch was famous for his profound images of sensuality, isolation, and death. This is one of the reasons why his subject matter had always been mysterious, adding to the fact that he was heavily influenced by great symbolists such as Odilon Redon and symbolist-impressionist Paul Gauguin. His works look more graphic than his symbolist predecessors, though, because of the intensity of his expressionism and controversial life. Munch would become one of the renowned artists of his generation for it.
Edvard Munch emerged during the early years of 20th century at that time when the artistic movement Art Nouveau had its golden years. No wonder his early works depicted a focus on enigmatic and raw sensibilities. However, he decided to turn away from the decorative motifs of this movement and came up with his own expressive motifs. He basically rejected painting what he sees at the moment but focused on how he exactly felt while going through certain circumstances. His paintings and themes apparently dealt with human psychology.
Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863 in Loten, Norway. He grew up in the rustic village of Adalsbruk and to his working-class family, Laura Catherine Bjolstad and Christian Munch. His father was a medical practitioner who may be related to painter Jacob Munch and history scholar Peter Andreas Munch. It is said that Edvard might have inherited his mother’s artistic talent and he showed interest in the arts at a young age.
In 1864, his family moved to Oslo because his father was assigned there particularly at the Akershus Fortress. In 1868 a couple of tragic events happened in his family when his mother and well-loved sister died of tuberculosis. From then on out, Edvard and his siblings would be raised by an aunt named Karen and by Christian.
During his boyhood, he had his bouts of illnesses which accounted for his isolation especially during most days of winter. He would keep himself busy with his aunt’s tutoring, though. He would then learn of literature and history from his own family and later he developed fondness of Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales. Besides his interest in gothic and dark literature, another factor that might have direct impact on his troubled life was his father’s morbid pietism.
Munch once noted that his father was close to losing himself due to his obsessions on religious combined with almost uncontrollable anxiety. He thought that he inherited this kind of madness from his father and it was something that he was destined to become. This was intensified by his nightmares and poor state of health, which eventually resulted to having a troubled mind throughout his lifetime.
The pre-mature deaths in his family affected him greatly that he recognized it as one of his “most frightful enemies”. He had to live in perennial poverty at a young age because his father could not provide well for them with his low-paying job. With that, the family had to move from one place to another just to cope up with the demands of their lifestyle.
Edvard Munch would now show deep interest in the arts until he was adolescent. His earliest exposure to the field was with an art association formed by a Norwegian landscape school. However, his father detested his goal of becoming a painter because he wanted his son to be an engineer. Christian Munch and his neighbors even saw art as an “unholy trade”, so the young Edvard received nothing but anonymous letters from people who were bitter about his career choice.
He stuck to what he did best at the time, saying that “in my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself”. In 1881 he attended the Royal School of Art and Design of Christiana. There he met one of the co-founding members, Jacob Munch, a distant relative. He was trained by Julius Middelthun for his sculpture lessons and Christian Krohg for painting. He was a fast-learner being able to learn how to paint landscapes at a quick pace and arrived to the point when he developed his own painting style.
One year later since Edvard began his art training, he and some other artists opened a studio. His association with a large group of students exposed him to some public art shows. However, much of his works during this period are now lost, but the most notable of them all was his Morning painting of 1884. He also produced a large-scale portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, but the art critic rejected the work for its extreme impressionism.
In the early stages of Munch’s career, he tried so many styles such as those of Impressionism and Naturalism. This is why some of his earliest works shared resemblance with the style of Manet. However, unfortunately, several of those works received unfavorable criticisms primarily because of the extremist religious ideology of his father and the press. His relationship with Hans Jaeger didn’t help him with his situation as well for Jaeger was known for his nihilist philosophy and suicide-oriented advocacies.
However, it cannot be denied that Munch absorbed Jaeger’s ideals as he claimed it himself. He nevertheless kept his positive behavior toward women at the time. Some years later though, with much influence of his vicious circle of friends, he grew accustomed to fighting for sexual liberation which was ongoing at the time. He expressed his cynicism in regard to the existing sexual concerns in paintings and in his writings such as in a poem entitled The City of Free Love.
For Munch, the impressionistic styles did not give him some room for expressing his raw emotions. He found the former too dense that he felt the urge to dig deeper and find an outlet for it. He then made use of these intense emotions by painting them in semi-abstract fashion. He never shied away from exploring his mental state and expressing them in painting, so his mature works are definitely a product of his self-examination rather than merely recording them.
Using expressionism, he produced powerful works such as The Sick Child in 1886, which is based on the death of his favorite sister. The painting received harsh responses from the community and his own family, though. His contemporaries and mentors were the only ones who seemed to have a deep understanding and appreciation of his works. Somehow the support of his contemporaries was enough to continue with painting.
Throughout the 1880’s, Munch experimented with different color palettes and brush stroke techniques. He obviously found it difficult to define his own artistic style. He swayed from naturalism, impressionism to expressionism as one can see in his Portrait of Hans Jaeger, Rue Lafayette, and Inger on the Beach paintings. Among the three, the Inger on the Beach of 1889 was a defining moment for him because the responses he received for it made him realize that he needed to deliberately think about his compositions in order to invoke emotion and tension.
In 1889, Edvard Munch conducted a one-man exhibition which went successful. The exhibition gave him the opportunity to study in Paris under the tutelage of Leon Bonnat. At that same year, the Exposition Universelle was held and he was invited to display his Morning painting together with two Norwegian artists.
Under the direct supervision of Bonnat, Munch spent the mornings at the studio and the rest of the day at different galleries and art shows. This kind of routine might stem from the tedious drawing lessons of Bonnat, but he nevertheless enjoyed the master’s critical take on certain art works as they paid a visit to various museums.
Upon discovering the expanse of Western art, he liked Gauguin’s works and artistic principles the most. It is also worth mentioning that his other stylistic inspirations are Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh who were known for their psychology of color and using it to express emotions.
December of 1884, Munch’s father died which left his family in financial distress. Fortunately his career was already established and he was able to receive a loan from a wealthy art patron in Norway. The death of his father left a huge impact on his emotional stability; he was suicidal for a moment.
Seven years after his father’s death, he produced Melancholy. The painting’s key visual is color while he used synthetist aesthetic to intensify every element. It was then considered as the first Symbolism painting executed by a Norwegian painter. In 1892 the Union of Berlin Artists contacted Munch to display some of his works for the group’s November art exhibition. It was their first one-man art show, although the show pushed through it was closed after seven days because of the controversy it affected to the audience, also known as The Munch Affair.
Edvard Munch gifted the world with The Scream painting (1893), which is a masterpiece of the modern art period. The work exists in two paintings and two pastels and was reproduced in lithographs later. The popularity of The Scream lies in the fact that it has universal truth in it as it represents the ever-pressing anxiety of modern mankind. It was painted with broad and loose brush strokes and the painter used a combination of intense warm and cold color palettes. Meanwhile, the man in screaming gesture is painted with an almost skull face to evoke agony and emotional crisis he’s into.
The Scream was a result of Munch’s self-examination. It represented his desperate attempt to feel normal again but wasn’t able to because he was already over the limit of his emotional stability. He gave up on love, so to speak, and thus he felt the intense “scream of nature” upon his being. The realization came about when he was out for a walk with some friends down the road and behind them was the sun about hide behind the mountains.
The sunset rays painted the sky with red which upon seeing tugged Munch sensitivities. He felt tired suddenly and felt the need to lean against the fence. The next thing he know was he felt this agony and hopelessness over his faith in the chance of “being able to love again.”
In the last two decades of his life Edvard Munch was in solitude. He obtained financial freedom from selling his works and holding exhibitions all throughout. He stayed in Ekely, Skoyen in Oslo to retire. Nevertheless, he painted some more, most of which depicted the farm life. He then shifted his focus to painting self-portraits and produced some semi-abstract paintings.
Throughout the 1930’s to 1940’s, the Nazis dubbed his works as “degenerate art” so 82 of his paintings on display at German museums were taken down. And when the Nazis invaded Norway, they have confiscated Munch’s works in his estate but fortunately his most important works have survived even to this date.
Edvard Munch died of old age in Ekely on January 23, 1944 at the age of 79. The Munch Museum at Toyen, sponsored by the city of Oslo, had taken the artist’s works under their custody.