Edvard Munch. Photograph: Nasjonalbiblioteket
Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was a brilliant, tortured soul, whose intimate self-expression pioneered a new brand of Modernist art. Drawing from his own troubled life, his world famous artworks explore universal fears around sex, death and desire.
Expressing the widespread uncertainties and upheavals of early 20th century Europe. His adventurous and free flowing language opened the floodgates for a secession of Modernist art movements to follow, including Fauvism, Expressionism and Futurism.
A Troubled Childhood
Munch was born in 1863 in the village of Adalsbruk, Norway and the family relocated to Oslo a year later. When he was just five the artist’s mother died of tuberculosis, followed nine years later by his older sister. His younger sister suffered mental health issues and was admitted to an asylum, while his tyrannical father was prone to fits of rage.
These accumulative events led him to later comment, “Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” A frail child himself, Munch often had to take months off from school, but he found an escape through the ghost stories of Edgar Allen Poe and by teaching himself to draw.
As a young adult in Oslo, Munch initially began studying engineering, but he eventually dropped out, much to his father’s dismay, and joined Oslo’s Royal School of Art and Design. While living in Oslo he befriended a bohemian group of artists and writers known as the Kristiana-Boheme.
The group was led by writer and philosopher Hans Jaeger, who believed in a spirit of free love and creative expression. Munch’s artistic interests were encouraged by various older members, who persuaded him to draw and paint from personal experience, as seen in early, grief stricken works such as The Sick Child, 1885-6, a tribute to Munch’s deceased sister.
The Influence of Impressionism
Following a trip to Paris in 1889, Munch adopted the French Impressionist style, painting with lighter colours and free, fluid brushstrokes. Just a year later he was drawn to the Post-Impressionist language of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, adopting their heightened sense of reality, vivid colours and free, roaming lines.
Interests in Sythetisism and Symbolism led him to delve even deeper within for artistic inspiration, tapping in to his innermost fears and desires. Following his father’s death in 1890 he painted the introspective and melancholic Night in St Cloud, 1890 in his memory.
Scandal in Berlin
By 1892 Munch had developed a signature style of free flowing lines combined with intense, heightened colours and expressively handled paint, elements which added dramatic effect to his emotive subjects.
Moving to Berlin, he held a solo exhibition at the Union of Berlin Artists in 1892, but the frank portrayals of nudity, sexuality and death combined with roughly applied paint caused such an uproar that the show had to be closed early. Munch capitalised on the scandal, which had made him quite famous in Germany, continuing to develop and display his work in Berlin for the next several years.
The Frieze of Life
The 1890s were the most prolific period of Munch’s career as he solidified his obsessions with sexuality, isolation, death and loss in a huge body of paintings and drawings. He took up a variety of new mediums to express his ideas, including printmaking in the form of etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, and photography.
From 1893 he began working on his huge suite of 22 paintings titled The Frieze of Life; the series followed a narrative sequence from the awakening of love between a man and a woman, to the moment of conception, as seen in the erotic Madonna, 1894, before their decline into death.
In the later 1890s he favoured the depiction of figures within imaginary, Symbolist landscapes that came to represent the journey of life, although places were often based on the countryside around Oslo where he frequently returned.
Munch never married, but he often portrayed relationships between men and women that were filled with tension. In works such as Two Human Beings, 1905, each figure stands alone, as if a gulf has come between them. He even portrayed women as figures of menace or threat, as seen in his Vampire series, where a woman bites into a man’s neck.
His attitude reflected the changing times he was living in, as traditional religious and family values were being replaced by a new, bohemian culture across Europe. Munch’s most famous motif, The Scream, of which he made several versions, came to epitomise the cultural anxieties of the times and has been compared with 20th century Existentialism.
Recovering from a Breakdown
Munch’s decadent lifestyle and excessive workload eventually caught up with him and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908. He was admitted to a hospital in Copenhagen and spent eight months on strict diet, with frequent bouts of electric shock therapy.
While in hospital he still made various artworks, including the series Alpha and Omega, 1908, which explored his relationships with the people around him, including friends and lovers. After leaving hospital Munch returned to Norway and lived a life of quiet isolation on instruction from his doctors.
His work shifted towards a calmer, less fraught style as he captured the natural light of the Norwegian landscape and its haunting beauty, as seen in The Sun, 1909 and History, 1910.
Various self-portraits from this time had a more sombre, melancholic tone, revealing his ongoing preoccupation with death. Even so, he lived a long, prolific life, and died in 1944 at the age of 80 in the small town of Ekely outside Oslo. The Munch Museum was erected in Oslo in 1963 in his honour, celebrating the vast and extensive legacy he left behind.
Munch’s work exists in museum collections all around the world and his paintings, drawings and prints reach staggeringly high prices at auction, making him a firm favourite with public and private collectors. Some of the most prominent examples include:
Stemming from Munch’s mature career, Badende was sold in Christie’s, London in 2008 for a steep $4,913,350 to a private collector.
This deeply atmospheric Norwegian landscape was sold at Sotheby’s, London for $6,686,400 to a private collector.
A firm favourite in Munch’s oeuvre, the work was sold at Sotheby’s, New York in 2008 for $38,162,500.
One of Munch’s most popular paintings, Girls on a Bridge shares stylistic similarities with Munch’s famous motif of The Scream, adding to its value. This painting was sold in 2016 at Sotheby’s New York for an astonishing $48,200,000.
A pastel version of this iconic image was sold for an astonishing $119,922 500 at Sotheby’s in New York in 2012, making it one of the most expensive artwork ever sold. Bought by a private collector, the other three versions all belong to museums.
Did you know?
Munch never married and had a tumultuous love life – in a mysterious event surrounding his relationship with the wealthy young Tulla Larsen, Munch received a gunshot wound to his left hand.
Munch bought his first camera in Berlin in 1902 and often photographed himself, both nude and clothed, in what may be some of the earliest examples of selfies ever recorded.
Throughout his career Munch produced a vast amount of work, including more than 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings and 15,400 prints.
Although he is best known as a painter, Munch revolutionized contemporary printmaking, opening the medium up for a new generation. Techniques he explored included etchings, woodcuts and lithographs.
A keen writer, Munch wrote diary entries, short stories and poetry, musing on subjects including nature, relationships and loneliness.
Munch’s most famous motif, The Scream was the subject of more than four different artworks. Two painted versions exist, and a further two made in pastel on paper. He also reproduced the image as a lithographic print, with a small edition run.
In 1994 two men stole Oslo Museum’s The Scream in broad daylight and left a note behind reading “Thanks for the poor security.” The criminals asked for a $1 million ransom which the museum refused to pay, while Norwegian police eventually recovered the undamaged work in the same year.
In 2004, another copy of The Scream was stolen by masked gunmen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, along with his Madonna. The paintings remained missing for two years, while police suspected they might have been destroyed. Both were eventually found in 2006, while police commented on their excellent condition: “The damage was much less than feared.”
Along with many of his avant-garde contemporaries, Munch’s art was deemed “degenerate art” by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, leading 82 of his paintings to be confiscated from Germany’s Museums at the advent of World War II. 71 of the works were recovered and reinstated in Norway’s museums after the war, while the final eleven were never found.
Many years after his death, Munch was honoured in his homeland of Norway by having his likeness printed onto the 1000 kroner note in 2001, while a detail of his iconic painting The Sun, 1909, was featured on the reverse.