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Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 391
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  • Book Info
    Edvard Munch
    Book Description:

    Although almost everyone recognizes Edvard Munch's famous paintingThe Scream,hardly anyone knows much about the man. What kind of person could have created this universal image, one that so vividly expressed all the uncertainties of the twentieth century? What kind of experiences did he have? In this book, the first comprehensive biography of Edvard Munch in English, Sue Prideaux brings the artist fully to life. Combining a scholar's precision with a novelist's insight, she explores the events of his turbulent life and unerringly places his experiences in their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual contexts.With unlimited access to tens of thousands of Munch's papers, including his letters and diaries, Prideaux offers a portrait of the artist that is both intimate and moving. Munch sought to paint what he experienced rather than what he saw, and as his life often veered out of control, his experiences were painful. Yet he painted throughout his long life, creating strange and dramatic works in which hysteria and violence lie barely concealed beneath the surface. An extraordinary genius, Munch connects with an audience that reaches around the world and across more than a century.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19421-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
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  2. Table of Contents
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    Munch repeatedly emphasised that his pictures fitted together ‘like the pages of a diary’. All his works are fragments of a great confession. Munch was twenty-eight when he embarked on the lifelong effort to paint his ‘soul’s diary’, the story of his reactions to whatever happened to him in his life. He intended the entire narrative to have a classical unity. The ambition was that by looking inside himself he would be capable of building an image of eternal truth from the transitory and particular laboratory of his own life’s experiences.

    ‘Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human...

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  6. Maps
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  7. Family Tree
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    ‘On the 12th of December my eldest son was born to the world, and was christened Edvard after my beloved father. May he die the Righteous Death, and his passing be as his.’ Christian Munch wrote in the family Bible, already looking through his son’s scarcely started life towards its important moment, its end and its soul’s salvation.

    The year was 1863, and the place the Engelhaug farmhouse in Løten, some 170 km north of Norway’s capital. The two-storeyed wooden farmhouse stands among white-stemmed birches on a knoll, commanding undulating pastureland and a cluster of subsidiary buildings set on stone...

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    Edvard’s christening was eventually registered at Løten church on 15 April 1864, when he was four months. At last the cold had relented sufficiently for him to be taken the short journey outdoors to the church without anxiety. The clerk, with a rustic touch, spelled his name ‘Eddevard’.

    The following winter in Hedmark was unusually long; the land remained deep frozen, dangerously cold for the small. Both Sophie and Edvard became ill; Laura always became depressed in winter; it was her gloomy time. She planted some peas on the windowsill for hope.

    Sophie’s cough was innocent of the tubercular signs...

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    The children’s smallest misdemeanour called forth the reminder that Mama saw them from heaven – and grieved. After the beatings, Christian would be overwhelmed with remorse but his sense of proportion was unbalanced by his isolation and his severity towards his children was spurred on by his desperately sincere religious conviction. ‘When father was not in the grip of a religious attack he could be like a child himself, teasing and playing with us, having fun and telling us stories. This made it doubly horrible when he punished us, beside himself with the intensity of his violence.’²

    He took on a...

  11. FOUR THE BLOOD-RED BANNER: 1876–1877
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    Edvard’s worst health crisis came at Christmas 1876, when he was thirteen. How almost palpable the presence of Laura’s ghost must have been each year around the lighted Christmas tree. This is his account of the episode:²

    ‘Papa the stuff I am spitting is so dark.’

    ‘Is it, my boy?’

    He brought the candle. I saw him hiding something. Next time I spat on the sheet to see what it was.

    ‘It is blood Papa.’

    He stroked my hair – ‘Don’t be afraid my boy.’

    So I had tuberculosis. There was so much talk about it. When you spat blood you...

  12. FIVE LOSING FAITH: 1878–1881
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    Edvard’s diary gave nothing away. You would think he had forgotten his favourite sister. Her name is expunged, apart from the short entry, ‘Today is the anniversary of Sophie’s funeral and Charlotte Myhre’s death,’¹ wedged between a visit to the zoo and notes on painting.

    Each member of the family contained the private scream behind a façade of normality. Tante Karen and Inger formed the mother-daughter bond, immersing themselves in useful household tasks. Andreas absented himself; melting into medical school life. Christian, Edvard and Laura, finding life intolerable, made a hidden escape into the life of the mind. Edvard began...

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    Edvard was approaching fifteen; he must look to a career. His weak health inflicted despair on him in terms of his future as he lay in ‘my bed that has become my torture chamber’,¹ but Christian had a plan. Engineers were the priests of tomorrow’s prosperity, the pilots of the industrial revolution. The Technical School, founded in 1873, aimed to train a native force of technicians and engineers so that, ‘In Norway the Norwegian people shall be master, they and no other, now and forevermore.’² Competition for the fifty places was tough. Two engineers, Søtaaen and Bull, were added to...

  14. SEVEN ‘NO MORE BROWN SAUCE’: 1882–1885
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    Krohg shook the snow off his boots and vanished back into the wider world. By March, he was in Paris where the Impressionist exhibition that year was dominated by Gauguin, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. The departure of Krohg was like the clouds closing on a sharp knife-gleam of light that momentarily had pierced the fog of small-town claustrophobia. Edvard’s canvases bore silent homage to his absent teacher.

    Krohg had scored a great success over Christmas withCarry for you?¹ a picture of one of the little boy-porters in the market. It was a social conscience picture, a romance...

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    When he came back to Norway it was summer. People were leaving the capital for the coast. The family had taken a cabin on the west side of the fjørd at Borre, a hamlet made mysterious by seven enormous Viking burial mounds in the woods, their heavy heathen presence countered by one of Norway’s earliest churches. Munch packed his painting things and boarded the ‘papa boat’, the steamer that pottered down the fjørd depositing mail and weekending papas.

    He wrote a long account of the journey and its consequences. In the fashion of the time he employs pseudonyms. He is...

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    Hans Jaeger was a restless, rebellious, highly individualistic genius, a disreputable wandering academic who was to become Munch’s Prometheus, the rebellious demi-god who symbolised the protest of the human spirit and who would render him free and unbound from his father.

    Jaeger was born in 1854 into a family that considered itself pious and cultured. Family pride resided in an ancestor¹ who had translated Goethe’s ‘Young Werther’ into Norwegian. Hans’s father, a military auditor, wrote an early childcare manual on how to bring up morally ordered children in a Christian and intellectual manner. At the age of sixteen, young Hans...

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    In April 1886, Hans Jaeger was tried for ‘blasphemy and violation of modesty and morality’. He was found guilty and sentenced to a prison term of eighty days, with a fine of eighty kroner. A critic in Denmark received a sentence of one month on prison diet merely for writing a review.²

    Jaeger was wretchedly frightened of gaol. An appeal bought him freedom until September when the case would be heard in the high court, but he had lost his livelihood. As a condemned criminal, he could be dismissed from his post as parliamentary stenographer. This was a happy outcome...

  18. ELEVEN AND VIRTUE IS A SHAM: 1886–1889
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    On the evening of 21 October 1886, Munch’s two best friends were on the leather banquette of a horse-drawn calèche, ‘each in his corner smoking his cigar while the gas lights flashed by us in endless repetition to left and right.’¹ Jaeger was on his way to prison and Krohg rode with him in the capacity of loyal lieutenant. At the prison portals they bumped into a pair of furniture movers, deeply apologetic because they could not get Jaeger’s writing desk through the narrow doorway of his cell. They never did manage to get it in and so he had...

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    The Paris of 1889 has been described as an explosion of multicoloured laughter, as it plunged into the Exposition Universelle celebrating the centenary of the Revolution. Monsieur Eiffel’s tower had confounded all doubters by its successful and punctual erection; at night it was an astonishing spectacle lit by ‘an avalanche of diamonds, a sparkle of jewels, sending flashes and glimmers of light that ripple in waves to the most distant, concealed corners of darkness. Jules Verne dreamed of travelling around the world in eighty days,’ continued the official guidebook, ‘at the Esplanade and the Champs de Mars you can do...

  20. THIRTEEN BIZZARRO: 1890–1892
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    Plagued by homesickness, Munch went home in early May. It was the season of the ‘papa boat’ and once he had assuaged family obligations he was drawn down to Åasgardstrand, the village he loved with a nostalgic joy. ‘Have you walked along that shoreline and listened to the sea? Have you ever noticed how the evening light dissolves into night? I know of no place on earth that has such beautiful lingering twilight . . . to walk about that village is like walking through my own pictures.’¹

    But the picture had changed, no longer did Millie take up her...

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    ‘Adelsteen Normann is very friendly–a few days ago he took me to an artists’ get-together,’ Munch wrote to Tante Karen, going on to ask her to send his frock coat as cheaply as possibly but as quickly too, ‘because they mind a lot about the correct clothes here–and it’s reasonable to expect I shall be invited to parties once the exhibition opens.’¹ Frock coats were the stuff of Berlin, the capital of the German Reich for the last twenty years, and his exhibition was to be held in a frock-coat location, the newly built Architektenhaus: a grandiloquent, neo-Renaissance...

  22. FIFTEEN MEMENTO MORI: 1894–1896
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    Laura’s condition meant she would be a lifelong financial burden on the family. Tante Karen and Inger continued to exist on the money from handicrafts and piano lessons and Munch was selling pitifully little. Even in Germany, where his works had been widely shown, he had managed to sell only two canvases in an entire year. What money he was making came principally from entrance fees. Andreas, however, had taken up a permanent post as a doctor, so there was at least one regular salary coming in. ‘We must come to some mutual agreement about how we are going to...

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    Munch arrived in Paris at a time when the clashes between the old and the new were in a more heightened state than usual. A string of anarchist bombs culminated in the assassination of President Sadi Carnot by the Italian anarchist Santo Casiero. It had a sobering effect. This was a very different Paris from the self-intoxicated year-long party of Expo 1889.

    Painting remained fragmented into many small groups, as though the huge bomb craters created by the absences of Gauguin and Van Gogh had blocked the obvious way ahead. On the literary scene the decadents’ star was past its...

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    When he first tried his hand at engraving in Berlin, Munch had taken to printmaking partly to make money and partly because he was finding himself pathologically unable to part with his paintings, his ‘children’. When he sold them, he found himself missing them dreadfully and would often try to ‘borrow them back,’ a request that did not always meet with enthusiasm.

    He did not regain possession to hang them up ostentatiously, or even to spend time looking at them. He just liked to know they were there, though he abused them terribly, stacking them up against the walls of...

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    Behind the large figures of Munch and Tulla inThe Dance of Life, the green grass stretches down to the shoreline. The dancers, ‘the raving mob, caught in wild embraces’,¹ swirl around them in whirling couples, the closest of which shows a depiction of lechery: a plump, green-faced seducer leering over his partner’s neck as though to devour her. It is a portrait of the playwright and critic Gunnar Heiberg, an original member of the Kristiania Bohême and a sexual kleptomaniac who derived satisfaction from making love to the ladies who had made love to Munch. Heiberg was notoriously the...

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    The new century had begun unpromisingly for Munch, with twenty-five of his paintings being put into pawn. He was living in the nightmare of the Yellow House where, long deprived of normal social intercourse, his introspection and estrangement prevented him from calling on his family. He wrote to them incessantly but he could not bring himself to go and see them. The unutterably gloomy house seemed a mere externalisation of the darkness in his soul. He left his big radio playing and the lights switched on day and night to keep the silence and the darkness at bay. Tante Karen...

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    ‘I was readingDie Fröliche Wissenschaftby Nietzsche recently and the following passage struck me,’ Munch wrote.

    ‘When misfortune occurs some people hoist all the sails. They can be called those with an heroic nature. Others yield to experience and are marked by it. They can, roughly speaking, be called the walking wounded.’

    I had to think about how I had been affected by my own misfortune and I wondered about this written passage. At the time I sustained the shot I was fairly indifferent and lethargic–almost cheerful. I did not know the full extent of my injuries; I...

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    ‘Maybe I’ll try a prison for fine lawbreaking aristocrats, or whatever one calls a nerve sanatorium,’ Munch decided, and hopped onto a train to Copenhagen for the purpose.¹

    The journey flowed like a dream through a land of paranoid delusion. Where he saw people standing on station platforms, he knew with absolute precision that they were detectives engaged by the fiends to spy on him. Their conversations, which pretended to be banal and innocuous, masked suspicious meanings. Every policeman he caught sight of was after him. There was a mystifying conversation with a man who supposedly spoke Esperanto to trick...

  29. TWENTY-TWO THE SUN, THE SUN: 1909–1916
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    Ravensberg watched the cautious return to the world of Munch’s worn mind as they journeyed up the coast. Day by day, he stepped a little further towards facing the present.

    3 May. We sail in good weather up past Kristiansand and Lillesand; Munch telling people about his grandfather being a priest.

    4 May. Munch talked about his time at the Technical School when he was working on higher mathematics that even his teacher didn’t understand. He had been good at physics, too. He remembered a boy with a big Adam’s apple whose eye was damaged in an explosion. Munch had...

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    Munch learned of the outbreak of the First World War as he stood outside the offices ofMorgenbladetamongst a crowd of people reading the latest dispatches posted in the newspaper’s windows. ‘Dear God,’ he exclaimed, ‘my world is falling apart! What shall I do? What shall I say? All my friends are German but it is France I love.’¹

    He found himself isolated from the up-and-coming Norwegian artists, who were anti-German in political sentiment and art. As far as the new generation was concerned it was almost as if Munch’s art had never existed. Several of the prominent young...

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    The Aula decorations and their reception had exacerbated tensions between Munch and his country. A rare occasion when he accepted an invitation to make an after-dinner speech summed up the mutual perplexities. He had prepared the speech and organised his evening dress but was unable to find the dress studs for his shirt, so he improvised using red matchstick heads and pins. They would resemble rubies from a distance, he thought. During the meal, he sat very still in order not to dislodge them and when the time came he rose and stood in complete silence. The speech was no...

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    On 9 April 1940, the Germans invaded Norway. Within sixty days, the king had taken the government into exile in London and Vidkun Quisling, leader of the Norwegian Nazi party, was the head of a self-proclaimed government.

    Munch’s supporters such as Jens Thiis were eager for him to hide his paintings. They feared they would be forcibly seized. Munch refused. His deepest fear was that he would be separated from them.

    I am afraid that the Germans are going to want to have my house, and in any case I’ve been told that one should be ready to evacuate. As...

  33. NOTES
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  36. Photograph and Text Credits
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