“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature…. I was stretched to the limit.… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
Edvard Munch’s description of the despair behind his most famous painting revealed a remarkably glum man, even by the standards of Scandinavia’s melancholic culture.
You might be downcast, too, if your ancestors endured centuries of long, dark winters slurping lutefisk, imbibing Norse mythology’s gospel of doom, and practicing a bleak, joyless brand of Lutheranism. We can think of Edvard Munch’s art as trudging despondently from the disempowering plays of Henrik Ibsen to the dispiriting films of Ingmar Bergman.
“My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious — to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
His father, a medical doctor, could not save his own family from illness. Tuberculosis killed Munch’s mother when he was five and took his favorite sister ten years later. Madness seized another sister.
Born today in 1863, Munch felt the spectre of imminent death haunting him all his life. Often too sick to attend school, the boy usually stayed home and drew. He received occasional tutoring from his aunt, his dad and sometimes his classmates.
His father showed love by telling his kids ghost stories and tales based on Edgar Allen Poe, and evoked obedience through the subtle strategy of telling them that their dead mother was looking down from heaven, deeply disappointed by their behavior.
His father sternly disapproved of Munch’s drift toward edgy art and at one point destroyed some of his nudes. Neighbors, art critics and the Norwegian press also condemned the young artist.
Munch became a bohemian, had some success in Paris, and pushed past Impressionism to become a founder of the Expressionist school.
The death of his father forced him to return from France and assume financial responsibility for his sisters. Munch did not relish the prospect:
“I live with the dead — my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father…. Kill yourself and then it’s over. Why live?”
Munch took out a loan to support the family, went to Berlin and continued painting to generate income. Reluctant to part with originals, he sold prints of his work and charged admission to his showings.
Munch bounced between Paris and Berlin for a couple of decades, struggling with alcoholism and anxiety, before returning to Norway in the 1910s. He never married, but may have had some relationships with some of his nude models.
In the 1930s, the Nazis purged his “degenerate” works from German galleries, but most of them were saved through sale to private collectors. After the Nazis invaded and occupied Norway in 1940, Munch lived in constant fear that fascists would storm his house and destroy his paintings.
Paradoxically, when he died in 1944, Quisling’s Nazi puppet regime appropriated the artist, violating his memory by giving him the dubious honor of a fascist state funeral.
Munch did not expect much from death:
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”