Edvard Munch’s wish in death was to immortalize his suffering and his paintings speak to this central message

Tragedy in the family is the central theme in The Scream and The Sick Child. The Scream is one of the most well-known of Munch’s paintings.

Introduction

Expressionism was one of the most renowned ways artists in the nineteenth century expressed themselves. European expressionists created their art by answering the inner recesses of the heart and the psyche. It was said that Edvard Munch’s paintings symbolized the epoch’s Expressionist views and were considered the most renowned. Munch’s artworks were an expression of his psyche, which was affected by bouts of mental illness and tragedy in the family. 

The Scream. Date: 1895. Artist: Edvard Munch. Norwegian, 1863-1944. Art in the public domain. The Art Institute of Chicago.

In the opening lines of The Self and the Psyche, Bassie and Ingles (2016) disclosed: “A potent aspect of Expressionism was the conviction, held by its creators, that their endeavors were carrying art into a wholly new realm of experience” (p. 39). In other words, Expressionist art is a continuation of an experience, and for Munch, the horrible experiences of death, coupled with an inherited mental illness, are expressed through art forms. The paintings such as The Scream, horrible as they may seem but are critically acclaimed because of the almost perfect rendition of the lines and colors, are immortalized in the Munch’s Museum in Oslo. 

Birth and Early Life 

Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863, in Ådalsbruk, Løten, Norway, the second child of Laura and Christian Munch (a doctor). Munch grew up in Christiana (now Oslo). He was an intelligent artist but was troubled with mental sickness he inherited from his father, tuberculosis from his mother, and his experiences with death as a child and teenager. In 1868, his mother, Laura, died of tuberculosis, and a few years after, his sister Sophie succumbed to the same disease. His father, Dr. Munch, was a religious person, and this religiosity became more intense after Laura’s death, affecting his behavior and relationship with his children. He was an authoritarian parent, sometimes giving punishment to Munch (Ingles, 2011). The struggle and experience with death caused Munch more suffering, a setting that is much present in The Sick Child. There were six versions of The Sick Child in ten-year intervals; the first version was made in 1885-1886 (Ingles, 2011). 

In 1879, Munch attended the Technical College in Christiania to take up engineering. As an engineering student, he learned to know about perspective and scaled drawing, but he quit his studies early on and pursued his desire to become a painter. The death of his mother and two sisters caused Munch anxiety and depression, which occurred at intervals during adult life (Azeem, 2015). Munch described his struggle with sickness and death through his paintings as if his soul was in a cage. We could sense in his art the mental anguish, resulting in emotional self-destruction and despair, coupled with experiences with drugs, absinthe, sometimes he tried to commit suicide because, as he said, the devil was speaking to him (Prideaux, 2005).

Munch was concerned about the development of his art through education. He used self-study to improve his knowledge of the arts and the renowned artists of his time. He read particularly Nietzsche, which influenced his works, but this influence was also reciprocal when both their works of art bored some similar features (Prideaux, 2005, p. 8). In 1884, he sold a painting, Morning (A Servant Girl), to Frits Thaulow, who gave him enough money to visit Antwerp and study in Paris. This gave him the opportunity to know a girl by the name of Emilie Thaulaw, who was married to a distant cousin. Having an affair with a married woman did not give much concern to Munch. There came a time that he did not believe in God because he suffered a lot as a child. Her relationship with Emilie was not made in heaven, as they say. Thaulow was 24, Munch was only 22, who did not have previous experience with girls. But he was enamored – to the point of obsession – with the blonde, Scandinavian beauty, who had a lot of admirers. Munch later realized that Milly was not faithful to him. He painted the Vampire, which was about a hating and vengeful heart, a victim of a woman’s unfaithful love.

Major Accomplishments

To the painter, his paintings had life by themselves – they gave him company. Whenever Munch sold one of his paintings, he felt lonely about it, so he painted another one that looked like it to provide him with the company. This could be why there are several versions for one theme: The Sick Child, for example, has several versions or copies. From 1903 to 1935, he painted twelve different variations of Girls on the Bridge. Munch was also vague on titles, and he did not give much importance to some of his paintings.

Munch’s paintings were like the pages of a diary (Prideaux, 2005); he exhorted himself even more than as a painter. He perfected the intricacies of graphic art from the time he started in Berlin at age 31. He mastered the art of print-making, motivated by his desire to increase his finances. His German donor, Baron von Bodenhausen, encouraged him to make print-making for money and collector base. Munch mastered engraving and lithographs, etching, and a new style in monochrome, which gave sharper and more focused painting. He was successful with the latter; many were captivated by the pure color, which brought enhanced expression to the emotions conveyed by the paintings from which they were based. He also excelled in woodcuts, an art form he learned in Paris, which gave concise emotional expressions.

An example is Melancholy (1896) and On Man’s Mind (1898), which used simple woodcut techniques to provide a clear, supple pattern giving the impression of a man oppressed by a woman (Ingles, 2011). Munch’s experiences with women motivated him to paint The Vampire, with his notes saying that women were sucking the blood of their victims. Two sisters and a mother gave Munch experiences of death, so when he painted these women, he was passionate about the subject that included death; an example of this is The Kiss. 

Greatest Achievements

Tragedy in the family is the central theme in The Scream and The Sick ChildThe Scream is one of the most well-known of Munch’s paintings, which critics and admirers would refer to as a symbol for fear and anxiety. This painting symbolized the angst embodied in the Expressionism of the late 19th century. Munch himself explained that The Scream depicted a scene he had witnessed while watching a sunset on a walk. Munch experienced the whole of nature as screaming. Bade describes The Scream as “a shriek of stomach-churning terror uttered by a cringing figure with a skull-like face outlined against a fiery, blood-red sunset” (p. 1). Munch’s painting technique, called the hestekur, or horse treatment, used oils roughly and scratched with sharp tools in the canvass. This was a discovery made by Jan Thurmann-Moe, chief technical conservator at the Munch Museum in Oslo when he made an X-ray study of the stages of composition (Holland, 2005).

The Frieze of Life series included Expressionist paintings like Man and WomanThe KissMadonnaThe VampireThe Yellow Boat (Jealousy), and The ScreamThe Kiss was one of Munch’s most popular and regularly revisited and reworked themes. In this painting, the forms of the man and woman became one being, suggesting sexual ecstasy but leading to their extinction (Prideaux, 2005). Edvard Munch is known by biographers and admirers for this quote about anxiety and loneliness: 

Madonna. Date: 1895/96. Artist: Edvard Munch. Norwegian, 1863-1944. The Art Institute of Chicago. Art in the public domain.

From the moment of my birth, the angels of anxiety, worry, and death stood at my side, followed me out when I played, followed me in the sun of springtime and in the glories of summer. They stood at my side in the evening when I closed my eyes and intimidated me with death, hell, and eternal damnation. And I would often wake up at night and stare widely into the room: Am I in Hell? (Njess as cited in Skryabin et al., 2020, p.571).

In Metabolism (1898-1899), oil on canvass, a man and a woman standing next to the Tree of Life, receives and gives energy coming from the dead bodies of a man and animal beneath its roots. The theme reflects the fall of Adam and Eve, but this is remediated by setting wooden frames with new symbols around them (Kuuva, 2016). 

The Sick Child was a large painting (120 cm), which pictured Munch’s struggle throughout his life and what he felt during his sister’s agony. Sophie repeatedly pleaded for help to relieve the pain, and Edvard was in deep sorrow because he wanted to take her place but could do nothing, just stare. Munch painted The Sick Child, from which he noted: “I … tried again and again to catch the first impression – the transparent pale skin against the canvas – the trembling mouth – the trembling hands” (Munch, 2005, p. 183). On the cover of the Journal of the American Medical AssociationThe Sick Child was used on its December 11, 1987, issue, which told of the devastation wreaked by tuberculosis in 1880 Norway. 

The Sick Child. Date:1894. Artist: Edvard Munch. Norwegian, 1863-1944. The Art Institute of Chicago.. Art in the public domain.

Retirement and Death

After journeys to many places in Europe, Munch returned to Norway in 1895, where he improved his work or started new art techniques such as engravings and etchings. On January 23, 1944, Munch died at Ekely. He bequeathed all works to the city of Oslo. Munch suffered until the end as he remembered his sister’s agony. This guild poured into his painting, described as “unbearably poignant” (Ingles, 2012, p. 30). In the painting, the young girl’s face looked like a dead person, almost ghostly as she silently asked to give more time to live. The Sick Child reflects the artist’s soul and can reasonably be termed one of the first Expressionist paintings. Munch’s wish in death was to immortalize his suffering, and his paintings speak to this central message.

References

Azeem, H. (2015). The art of Edvard Munch: A window onto a mind. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 21(1), 51-53. 10.1192/apt.bp.114.012963

Holland, J. G. (2005). The private journals of Edvard Munch: We are flames which pour out of the Earth. University of Wisconsin Press. 

Ingles, E. (2011). Munch. Parkstone International.

Kuuva, S. (2016). A metabolism of Adam and Eve: Damien Hirst meets Edvard Munch. Approaching Religion, 6(2), 125-135. 10.30664/ar.67597

Munch, E., Holland, G., Heifedt, F., & Holland, F. (2005). The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth. University of Wisconsin Press.

Prideaux, S. (2005). Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. Yale University Press.

Skryabin, V., Skryabina, A., Torrado, M., & Gritchina, E. (2020). Edvard Munch: The collision of art and mental disorder. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 23(7), 570-578. https://doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2020.1777537