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April 1, 2006

The Pain Painter

Henrik Bering on Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux


Sue Prideaux.
Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.
Yale University Press. 391 pages. $35.00

Among a group of eight paintings by the Norwegian master Edvard Munch sold at a recent auction at Sotheby’s in London was a work from 1916 representing a farmer ploughing a field with two horses — a dark one and a light one. But this is no ordinary rural idyll. Munch, being a devotee of heavyweight symbolism and taking his cue from Plato’s Phaedrus, painted the two horses as symbols of the nature of man, one representing the spiritual side, the other the passions — with his ploughman, as Reason, keeping the two in balance. The painting is revealing: Throughout his own life, Munch struggled to control the dark horse.

Sometimes his erratic nature could be rather endearing: Once, when preparing to give a speech at a formal event in the capital of Kristiania, he could not find studs for his dress shirt. Coming up with a quick solution, he used pins and red matchstick heads instead, hoping they might be taken for rubies when seen from afar. He did not move a muscle throughout the dinner for fear of dislodging them. Then a new problem presented itself: He knew what he wanted to say, but when he got up to perform, he could not for the life of him remember the customary phrases of introduction and just stood there in embarrassed silence. It wasn’t until he sat down again that the words belatedly occurred to him. They were “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

While a certain amount of eccentricity is charming, madness is decidedly not. And Munch’s life was spectacularly chaotic much of the time. Though he is considered the first expressionist, and though he produced some of the iconic paintings of the modern world — most notably “The Scream” and “Madonna” — in contrast to other modern painters like van Gogh and Gauguin, not much is known about him among English speakers, no doubt owing to his having come from a faraway country in the frozen North. This situation has now been remedied by Sue Prideaux with her superb new biography, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, source of the incident described above. Prideaux is of Norwegian extraction and reads the language, which is mightily helpful, as Munch was a prolific writer. Apart from an in-depth portrait of the artist, who lived from 1863 to 1944, the book provides an incredibly vivid picture of the mad antics of the late nineteenth-century European art world, where Nordic gloom had replaced Japanese simplicity as the latest fad among the avant-garde.

“Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle,” Munch wrote in his journal. This is certainly no exaggeration. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, and his beloved sister Sofie followed ten years later. A younger sister went mad, and a brother also died. His father was a poorly paid army doctor, violent and harsh and given to bouts of deep depression and religious obsession. His idea of childrearing included reading Edgar Allan Poe and Dostoyevsky aloud to the toddlers, which predictably scarred them for life. “Often I awoke in the middle of the night,” Munch recalled, “gazing around the room in wild fear — was I in hell?” His first memory, formed as he sat on the doorstep in Kristiania waiting for his father to come home, was of an ominous crowd coming toward him. “I could see behind everyone’s mask. Behind the smiling faces, the pale corpses that endlessly wend their tortuous way down the road that leads to the grave.” In his first major effort as a youngster he painted the scene, with an added Munch touch: The members of the crowd are all blind.

This incident and the harrowing scenes of the deaths of his family members stayed with Munch all his life, and he returned to them again and again in his paintings. Thus, critics have compared him to those other great purveyors of pessimism, the playwright and painter August Strindberg and the novelist Knut Hamsun. But Munch wins the title of most angst-ridden man in Scandinavia hands down.

Rather than becoming an engineer, as had been his father’s wish but which his frail health had prevented, Munch chose the artist’s life and as a young man attached himself to the anarchic Kristiania bohemian scene, with its noisy ideas of free love and wife swapping. The central figure among the radicals here was Hans Jaeger, a pornographer and intellectual charlatan who has been well summed up by a British critic as a “fin-de-siecle Viking nihilist,” of which there are hopefully not too many left around. Munch specifically identified Jaeger as the most formative intellectual influence on his life.

Holding court at the café of the Grand Hotel, Jaeger was a man suffering from delusions of grandeur on a satanic scale. “It is as if everything stiffens in terror when I approach,” he bragged, “as if my fingers confer the touch of death. At my approach the very birds of the air scream, ‘It is he! It is he!’ Beating their wings to escape me, terror-stiffened they discover they cannot rise . . . wherever I go I am preceded by a toxic chill poisoning the very air.” During the day, this Prince of Darkness filled the rather more humble position of stenographer in the Norwegian parliament until he was tried and convicted for blasphemy and pornography.

As their guidelines, Jaeger and his disciples created their own Ten Commandments, or rather nine, of which the first was “Thou shalt write thy life” and the last was “Thou shalt kill thyself.” “I shall not rest until I have corrupted my entire urban generation,” Jaeger swore, “or driven them to suicide.” In this enterprise Jaeger was occasionally successful: When the first of his disciples committed suicide, it was described as “Norway’s first anarchist act,” and others followed suit. When he could get nowhere with Munch on this score, Jaeger hopefully suggested that Munch at least kill his father instead!

However, as Prideaux tells us, Munch did follow the first commandment, beginning what he called “my soul’s diary,” a kind of therapeutic journal. As a result, he is one of the best documented artists around. Shy and well-mannered, even when drunk, Munch at this early point in his career was, as described by one of his contemporaries, “a striking beauty in rags buttoned up to the chin, with the air of a nobleman, as proud as he was starving.” But as Prideaux notes, while he may have seemed a bit detached, preferring to watch things from a distance, he possessed an iron will in pursuing his goals and had very definite ideas of his art.

Describing his ambitions as a painter, he cited Dostoyevsky as a major influence. “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls,” he wrote. “No one in art has penetrated as far as Dostoevsky into the mystical realms of the soul, towards the metaphysical, the subconscious, viewing the external reality of the world as merely a sign, a symbol of the spiritual and metaphysical.”

Munch’s first “soul painting,” Prideaux says, was “The Sick Child,” which shows his sister on her deathbed with his mother crumpled up in grief next to her. The painting has been hailed as the first expressionist masterpiece, and Munch himself described it as “the fulcrum” of his art and “the foundation stone for everything that followed.”

Munch’s early efforts, displayed at the autumn exhibition of 1886, where “The Sick Child” was shown, were scorned by the critics, who labeled them “feverish hallucinations” and “deviant French art,” with one critic feeling “injured by his treatment of colour.” His realist colleagues accused him of “painting like a pig” and castigated him for the coarseness of his style and his avoidance of detail, complaining, for instance, that he painted hands that “look like sledgehammers.” His response was that “we can’t all paint fingernails and twigs.” What he was after in “The Sick Child” was painting the emotions of the scene, not its mere physical manifestation. “I wasn’t painting substance. I was painting the exhausted movement of the eyelid, the lips whispering. . . .”

Thus, when Munch painted a landscape or a person, he only occasionally sneak-peeked at the subject — in order not to be overpowered by irrelevant detail, he would half shut his eyes, trancelike. It was the state of mind the motif produced in him he was trying to recreate. (Once, doing a portrait of two boys, he continued talking to them long after they had wandered off.) As for his sense of color, he hated the smooth varnished look of traditional oil paintings — “the brown sauce” as he called it —  preferring instead a dry, powdery look. And to his mind’s eye a cornfield could perfectly well be blue or red if that was the way it struck him.

Despite the criticism, he was awarded a state scholarship to study art in Paris in 1889. Here Leon Bonnat became his teacher, but Munch quit his studies after a row with Bonnat over color perception. Instead, he spent the afternoons touring the city’s bars and brothels, fueled by absinthe, or “the Green Fairy” as it was known after its hallucinogenic properties. Munch described its effect on him: “All sensations are perceived by all senses at once. My own impression is that I am breathing sounds and hearing colours, that scents produce a sensation of lightness or of weight, roughness or smoothness, as if I were touching them with my fingers.” Munch liked his absinthe mixed with brandy and champagne.

It was in Paris that he had two visions which were to sustain him for the rest of his life and which have become known as the Saint Cloud Manifesto. One early spring afternoon, as he walked up the hill of Saint Cloud, the sound of a cock crowing, the smell of a bonfire, and a cluster of new shoots emerging from the ground melted together in his mind and produced a glimpse of eternity, of a world where nothing ever perishes. The second vision took place in a cabaret where, as he watched a lilac-clad Spanish tightrope dancer being replaced by a group of Romanian singers, he experienced a fusion of music and color. “The melted notes became green palm trees and steely blue water floating in the blue haze of the room,” he wrote. From then on, he was determined to produce a new kind of painting, linking up with the timeless and eternal. “People should understand the significance of it. They should remove their hats like they do in church.”

 

Munch spent his time shuttling between Kristiania, Paris, and Berlin in search of recognition. He had been invited to Berlin by the German art community, and here, in 1892, he obtained a breakthrough of sorts at an exhibition that had to close after one week due to the furor it created. Der Kaiser himself refused to attend for “fear of becoming seasick,” but it brought Munch’s name to everybody’s lips, and other exhibitions quickly followed in Germany and in Denmark.

In Berlin, Munch linked up with August Strindberg — regarded today as one of Sweden’s most accomplished playwrights and painters — who traveled everywhere with a green and white striped footbath and a green flannel suit in his luggage. (Both he and Munch were extremely particular when it came to clothes.) Strindberg devoted his time in Berlin to refuting Newton and God and to the study of Satanism and neurology. He dabbled in alchemy, trying to create gold out of lead; he injected fruits and plants with morphine to determine whether they had nervous systems; and he claimed to have invented x-rays.

Strindberg’s perception of reality being somewhat flawed, in Prideaux’s understatement, he at one point mistook a bar sign for a suspended piglet. Thereafter “The Suspended Piglet” was their nickname for their favorite Berlin hangout. Here a widely shared mistress would dance naked wearing only a crown of lobsters while the revelers made sea noises by blowing into bottles, all to the accompaniment of Grieg and Bach — in other words, the usual bohemian lechery masquerading as high art.

Knowing Strindberg was not without its attendant risks. Once, while the two were in Paris — where Strindberg was busy visiting cemeteries to “collect the emanations of the dead” — Munch made a lithographic portrait of the Swede, misspelling his name as “Stindberg,” meaning “mountain of hot air.” Strindberg brought a revolver to their next meeting and silently placed it on the table in front of him. Munch’s “mistake” was hurriedly corrected. He wrote home about Strindberg, “He has persecution mania and has discovered the earth to be flat. The stars are holes in its ceiling.” Strindberg apparently also believed that there were assassins next door playing three pianos simultaneously. The two split after Strindberg accused Munch of trying to kill him through magic spells. Munch received a postcard from Strindberg that said, “Your attempt to assassinate me through the Muller-Schmidt method failed. Enjoyed the evening. Signed Strindberg.”

The Berlin period of frantic nightlife, according to Prideaux, coincided with the first exhibitions of a set of paintings that were to become the central part of Munch’s life work, portraying “the secret life of the soul” and love’s cycle, starting with love’s initial stirrings in “The Voice,” the first sexual experience in “The Kiss,” love’s pain and mystery in “Vampire” and “Madonna,” followed by its decline, and ending in death and despair. This cycle, which became known as the Frieze of Life, would eventually contain some 20 core paintings. With these he would occasionally throw in another painting or two for the rest of his career.

“The Scream” — which has come to be seen as the ultimate illustration of Nietzsche’s axiom that “God is dead and we have nothing to replace him with” — is the final effort of this early batch. In this painting Munch’s earlier crowd pictures of the living dead have been distilled to one agonized figure, bursting into a cosmic scream. Thus Munch himself on the vision behind “The Scream”:

I went along the road with two friends —

The sun set.

Suddenly the sun became blood — and I felt the breath of sadness

A tearing pain beneath my heart

I stopped — leaned against the fence — deathly tired

Clouds over the fjord of blood dripped reeking blood

My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound

in my breast trembling with anxiety I heard the huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.

Prideaux points out that the vision occurred to him while he was back in Norway, visiting Ekeberg, a high point east of Oslo, where both the city’s madhouse — where his sister was kept — and its slaughterhouse were situated and where the screams of the animals would mingle with those of the insane.

The painting was not without its costs. About these he wrote: “And for several years I was almost mad — that was the time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head . . . I was being stretched to the limit — nature was screaming in my blood. . . . I was at breaking point. . . . After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.” (A version of “The Scream” and his “Madonna” were stolen from the Munch museum in Oslo in 2004 and have not been recovered.)

 

A  great interest in the connection between art and mental disorders was part of the intellectual climate of the times. In Paris, it was the subject of doctor Marcel Reja’s book, The Art of the Mad in Painting, Prose and Poetry, based on the works of his patients at the Salpêtrière mental hospital. Munch made a woodcut of the good doctor, who in return praised him in an influential art journal as a “cultural symbolist who evokes universality,” commending “his ability to pierce the exterior” and putting him on a level with Goya and Blake.

Further recognition followed exhibitions in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna in 1905. “For us, there were only three names, van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch,” wrote the German painter Emil Nolde. “Munch came to us as a spiritual pillar in a time of doubt and searching. His art acted upon us like an explosion. A hand slashing paint on a canvas as he does could sooner be imagined as wielding a knife or throwing a bomb.”

Munch’s behavior, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly erratic, particularly with respect to women and drink. His relationship to women — or rather Woman with a capital W, as he put it in his journal — was complicated, to say the least. Known as the “handsomest man in Norway,” and well-mannered to boot, he attracted women as catnip does cats, but preferred to keep them at arm’s length. A couple of early affairs had gone wrong, and the antics of his friends had given him a warped sense of women. And he never wanted children, as he feared they would become insane. The classic Madonna/whore view of women is apparent in his paintings of what he called “vampire women” with “nutcracker muscles in their thighs.”

In a quarrel with his Norwegian mistress, Tulla Larsen, who stalked him all over Europe, he ended up shooting himself in a finger, which for the rest of his life remained sheathed in black leather. This slight injury he blew up to mythical proportions, painting himself stark naked on an operating table lying in a huge pool of blood. The motif was given an extra twist when he rendered himself as a revolutionary Marat with Miss Larsen as Charlotte Corday. Elsewhere he depicted his British mistress, the violinist Eva Mudocci, as Salome, with his own bedraggled features supplying John the Baptist’s severed head. It goes without saying that he also portrayed himself as a crucified Christ.

There were other regrettable incidents scattered throughout his life: He threatened a Dutchman with a pistol in a spa hotel in Kosen; through the window of his studio in Norway, he fired a shotgun after a fellow artist whose portrait he was painting. And, as Prideaux notes, his train journeys are the stuff of legend. On one occasion, he couldn’t find his compartment and believed the painting he had brought with him had been stolen. He presented himself to the conductor as a member of the British aristocracy and astonished the man by ordering him to find the painting immediately or “it might bring about war.” Fortunately, the conductor managed to locate Munch’s compartment, with the painting in it, for him. On another trip he fancied he was being watched by detectives who had been hired to spy on him and beset by people speaking Esperanto to trick him. His journal records the following meeting on a train: “A strange man with a birds head, spindly birds legs and a cloak flew into the carriage. ‘What is your metier?’ ‘A psychiatrist from Vienna.’”

In 1908, he had himself committed to a mental clinic in Copenhagen to be treated for alcoholism. There he painted and flirted with the nurses and kept what he called “the Mad Poets Diary.” In textbook fashion, he painted a hostile full-length oil portrait of his psychiatrist, Dr. Jacobsen, making him look suitably diabolical. Munch knew he needed help, but he was scared of being too cured, regarding his illness as essential to his art. “My art is grounded in reflections over being different to others,” he wrote. “My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” And: “For as long as I can remember I have suffered from deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder.”

In Copenhagen, Munch also painted his private version of the Fall, which Jacobsen wanted him to destroy as the product of an insane mind;the doctor relented, for fear of looking foolish, when he heard the announcement that Munch had been awarded the Order of St. Olav. By the time he checked out of the clinic, Munch had decided to go easy on the drink. And women he vowed to handle “like beautiful flowers, carefully smelling their perfume while leaving their petals intact.”

 

Back in norway, Munch was now a favorite of the art establishment and a wealthy man. Prideaux shows him working furiously in his studio with a radio playing in every room, each one tuned to a different channel, with preachers roaring at one another on Sundays. He especially enjoyed the white noise of interference between the stations, which gave him a feeling of being in touch with the invisible radio waves, a kind of punk version of the music of the spheres.

Visitors were astounded by the way he treated his paintings. Munch regarded his paintings as his children and found it very hard to part from them, but he did not treat them well. They could be seen outside, leaning against fences or hanging from trees, stuck in snowdrifts or lying in the pouring rain. One of his setter dogs went straight through one of the canvases, destroying it. When asked why he left them thus unprotected, he answered: “It does them good to fend for themselves.” Occasionally he would give one of his paintings a smart kick, saying: “A good painting can take quite a bit. Only poor paintings require neatness and gilded frames.” Prideaux compares this Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest test for paintings to the Spartans’ exposing of their children to the elements.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, Munch, as the leader of the expressionist movement and a darling of the Weimar Republic, ended up on Hitler’s list of degenerate art, Entartete Kunst. Interestingly, in the early days of the Third Reich, Goebbels had seen the expressionists as the true representatives of the Nordic spirit and had hailed Munch as “the greatest painter of the Germanic world” in connection with the artist’s seventieth birthday. In this error, Goebbels was quickly corrected by Hitler, the ultimate political expressionist, who wanted a monopoly on violence.

In the great, four-month-long travelling exhibition of Entartete Kunst, which began in Munich in 1937, the modernists were hung — crookedly and with nooses around them — together with paintings from asylums, with comments from Nazi leaders appended. Munch had his own room in the exhibition. Much of what was displayed was on its way to being destroyed or, as in Munch’s case, sold off. Many of his paintings were bought by his friend, the ship-owner Thomas Olsen, and hidden in a far-away farmhouse during the war. But when Munch died in 1944, the Nazis — at this point desperate to latch onto his fame — hijacked his funeral, supplying an enormous wreath of swastikas, leading some to believe that Munch had been a Nazi sympathizer.

 

When critics look over Munch’s career, most see a strong beginning followed by a long stagnation. The problem with Munch is that he often talks a better game than he performs — not unlike the 60s druggies describing their amazing psychedelic experiences — and his paintings are frequently unintelligible without his commentary. His journals, when quoted from discriminately as Prideaux does, may seem brilliant. If you read them at length, though, they resemble a doctor’s journal, with endless repetition. The cliché of madness as a precondition of great art, conferring a special insight, has always been rather tiresome.

Moreover, Munch’s relentless pessimism seems mannered and slightly comic today. In another of the paintings sold at Sotheby’s, he depicted himself recovering from the Spanish Flu. Many years after he’d finished the painting, he asked an admirer to step closer to it to sniff the paint, over which he had coughed so liberally decades earlier. “Can’t you see that I am rotting away?” he asked with great glee. Prideaux brings the artist and his art wonderfully to life in Behind the Scream, but occasionally one would like a moral judgement. Munch and his circle were, after all, a bunch of very unpleasant people. Sometimes it would be refreshing to see art writers exhibiting the kind of courage evinced by George Orwell in the 1946 piece in which he nailed Salvador Dali; but in general they seem very reluctant to do so, for fear of appearing unsophisticated and not quite with it, or of seeming to side with Hitler, or of being considered bourgeois bores.

Or — to return to Munch’s painting of the horses — for much of the twentieth century, mankind’s dark horse was running wild, and it ought to have been the job of the artist and the intellectual to try to control it. Instead, one saw the mad leading the blind, which made it all too easy for the evil to triumph. Come to think of it, that sounds like a Munch painting.


Editor's note: The exhibition "Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul" is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through May 8.