One of the most famous Norwegian artists, Edvard Munch (1863— 1944), was born into a middle-class family plagued with tuberculosis, which caused the death of his mother when he was five and his eldest sister when he was 14. Also, his father and brother died when he was still young, and another sister developed a mental illness. It is not surprising, given these events, that the theme of illness and death influenced most of Munch’s artistic outcome: “Illness, insanity, and death,” as he said, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”
Munch developed a passion for drawing at a young age but received little formal training. An important factor in his artistic upbringing was the Kristiania Bohème, a circle of writers and artists in Kristiania (Oslo, as it was then called). Among its members, Munch followed the suggestions and teachings of Christian Krohg, one of the older painters of the circle.
After a trip to Paris in 1889, he assimilated French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism styles, adopting open brushstrokes and Paul Gauguin’s bold lines. In this period, he also got in contact with decadent Symbolist poetry, which pushed him to develop a personal philosophy of art and existence. By the 1890s, Munch reached his style: the complex use of lines in his new paintings seemed to propose a version of contemporary Art Nouveau, but Munch’s aim was never decorative. Instead, in his conception, the meaning of art is more spiritual and emotional, a way to reveal profound emotions, often loneliness and despair. When invited to exhibit at the Union of Berlin Artists in 1892, Much faced a very controversial reception of his work, considered too frank in the representation of sexuality and shocking in exposing violent emotions; his style was seen as “unfinished.” The debate on this new, unconventional artist scandalized the artistic scene, which at least helped make his name known throughout Germany and farther. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892–95 and then in Paris in 1896–97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled back in Norway in 1910.
In the Berlin years, Munch produced the nucleus of his series of paintings on Love and Death, which in 1902 comprehended 22 works under the title of Frieze of Life at the Berlin Secession. Munch constantly rearranged these paintings; if one had to be sold, he would make another version. That’s why in many cases, several painted versions and prints are based on the same image, as happens for his most famous masterpiece, The Scream, which is the subject of two paintings, two drawings, and many prints.
Munch’s later years were affected by his nervous breakdown in 1908–09. Then, finally, his artistic value started to be recognized in Norway: an especially important commission was given to him for the Oslo University Murals (1909–16), the centerpiece of which was a vast painting of the sun flanked by allegorical images. Both landscapes and men at work provided subjects for Munch’s later paintings. Yet it was principally through his work of the 1890s, in which he gave form to mysterious and dangerous psychic forces, that he made such a crucial contribution to modern art. In 1937 his work was included in the Nazi exhibition of “Degenerate Art.” With no heirs, on his death, Munch donated his estate and all the paintings, prints, and drawings in his possession to Oslo, which erected the Munch Museum in 1963. Many of his finest works are in the National Gallery in Oslo.
By Stanislav Kondrashov