Monday, June 11, 2007

cascada post 15

The Scream You Didn't Hear

Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter was born near Olso, then Christiania, in 1863. At that time the United States was in the middle of its Civil War, and Sweden and Norway were united, albeit with stresses. Munch was to see his mother die when he was five, and his favorite sister a year older than him, when he was 14. Both died of tuberculosis. It seems his life was filled with struggle and he once said "Sickness, insanity, and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life." So perhaps it is not surprising that his most famous painting, The Scream, painted in 1893 is full of psychological torment.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch, 1893

I once thought there was just one scream, and was perturbed when I learned a few years ago that it was stolen. In fact at Munch made at least 50 versions of The Scream including lithographs. Two different versions were stolen, one in 1994 the other in 2004.

Munch described the circumstances which led to the scream as follows:

"I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there were blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

So the figure depicts Munch himself, but it was not he who screamed, rather the picture depicts fear, angst and panic and the desire to escape it. Some believe that the red skies are real because the recent eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa caused intense sunsets throughout the world at about that time.

The 2004 theft included also this Munch painting, about which I know very little:

Madonna, by Edvard Munch, 1894-95

Both paintings were recovered in 2006, but were significantly damaged.

When I recently read that one Munch painting caused a scandal and that people demanded that his show be taken down, I thought it must have been his Madonna since it is a surprisingly sensuous Virgin painting (if, in fact, that is what it is), especially for one painted in the nineteenth century. But no, the painting which caused the scandal was this one:

The Sick Child, by Edvard Munch, 1886

It was in Berlin in 1892 and the show was taken down and the art was called degenerate. Apparently, the art critics of Berlin at the time were conservative and expected realistic, natural, and perhaps formal art. Pieces such as the The Sick Child and some others in the show seemed unfinished, and unprofessional with the surface scratched and some paint scraped off in places. Although the mood evoked was reminiscent of Munch's sick and dying sister, a sort of "psychological realism", it was interpreted as at best disrespectful if not outrightly provocative and anarchistic. In fact Munch was closely connected to the bohemian group Kristianiabohêmen and a good friend of one of its key members, Hans Jæger, writer, philosopher, and political activist, and ribald anarchist.

Hans Jæger, by Edvard Munch, 1896

The paradoxical consequence of Munch's 'scandalous show' was immediate notoriety which Munch was able to parlay into new shows and commissions.

In this next painting Munch portrays his family in the sickroom with his dying sister, seated.

Death in the Sickroom, by Edvard Munch, 1893

Below, in no particular order, are several more pieces by Munch.

Ashes, by Edvard Munch, 1894

Dr. Linde's sons, by Edvard Munch, 1904

The Flower of Pain, woodcut by Edvard Munch, 1898

In Munch's troubled life he suffered at times from over indulgence with alcohol, with insomnia, and with depression. Still, he had several relationships with women, who apparently pursued him more than he pursued them. The most noteworthy was with Tulla Larsen whom he met in 1898. Her ardor and desire for marriage exceeded his and their relationship came to a dramatic end in 1902 in an incident in which he (apparently), either accidentally or purposefully shot himself in the left hand. The next painting is usually interpreted to reflect this incident, although, the name refers to a same-named work of Jacques Louis David (1748–1825).

Death of Marat I, by Edvard Munch, 1907

We end with three Munch self portraits:

Self Portrait with a Cigarette, by Edvard Munch, 1895

Self Portrait with a Bottle of Wine, by Edvard Munch, 1906

self portrait, The Night Wanderer, by Edvard Munch, 1923-24

It is worth pondering, I think, some of Munch's own words:

‘Whether the picture resembles nature or not is irrelevant, as a picture cannot be explained;
the reason for its being painted in the first place was that the artist could find no other means
of expressing what he saw. The finished work can only give a hint of what was in the artist’s mind.’

‘The camera will never compete with the brush and the palette, until such time as photographs
can be taken in Heaven or Hell.’

‘In my art I have tried to find an explanation for life and to discover its meaning.
I also intended to help others understand life.’
As old age approached Munch became increasingly isolated. He remained productive and eventually donated his voluminous collection of personal work to the city of Oslo.

At the time of his death in 1944, Norway, his homeland, was still in the grips of the Nazis. And I was 6 months old!

If you endured this far, but found this posting a little heavy, you might want to try this obliquely related link, which is billed as a brainteaser but is more of an optical thing where you stare at a picture for about a minute, until you 'get it'. Click here to try it.


Esther said...

Wonderful article. Really moved the artist into the foregrand, rather than as a shadow behind is almost too well known, too popularized Scream. The only thing I didn't like at all was the very last sentence for reasons that have nothing to do with its style or grammar.

Rob Anderson said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative article. It's so rare to find good writing like this in the Blogospere. I learned more about Munch than I'd hitherto known.

JB said...

Thanks Esther and Rob for the encouraging comments. It is always nice to know someone appreciates my efforts to share things I like.