Edvard Munch

1 - 2 - 3 - 4
Edvard Munch
The portraitist

Closer to the style of his landscapes, and, like them, richer in color, is the new portrait of his sister Laura (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo) that Munch painted around 1900 under the title (repeated on several occasions) of Melancholia. The girl is seated idly in front of a table on which stands a pot of flowers. Her back is toward the windows of the room, and her gaze is fixed on a dream that is fascinating her, and which, translated through the medium of her face, fascinates us in turn, just as we are overwhelmed by the very prostration Laura seems to be distractedly suffering because of her solitude.
In the large full-length portraits painted in the early years of this century, Munch sometimes reflects of Manet, for whom he had acquired a profound admiration in Paris. Solidly built up and broadly painted, they express the model's character with great perspicacity. «I am able to see the person behind the mask,» Munch stated. In 1901 he painted the portraits Hermann Schlittgen and Monsieur Archimard also known, respectively, as The German and The Frenchman. In 1903 he did two female portraits — Aase Noerregaard and The Actress Ingse Vibe Muller. These were followed in 1904 by Max Linde and Count Kessler, the latter a bust view in front of the count's library.


Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle

Woman in Blue (Frau Barth)

Two years later Munch painted two other portraits of this German Maecenas who, in 1908, took Maillol to Greece, a trip from which the sculptor derived tremendous educational benefits.
The year of 1904 is also the year of a new Self-Portrait in which the painter appears dressed in an elegant frock coat and holding his brushes in his hand. In 1905 he made an etching of Gustav Schiefler, the man who in 1923 was to publish in Dresden a major book on Munch's graphic work. Nietzsche and Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche were the chief portraits of 1906, Ernest Thiel and Walter Rathenau those of 1907. With the exception of Mr. Archimard, the painter's patrons were almost all German or Norwegian.
Nearly all these portraits are treated in the same vigorous style that at the time must have seemed reasonably «modernistic.» In 1907 he began a series of nudes in a more daring style, in which he seems to return, in a very personal manner, to an Impressionist vision. In Consolation (in which a man holds a weeping woman in his arms), Amor and Psyche, and the strange Marat's Death (in which a nude woman stands in front of a death bed), the entire canvas is painted with long, vertical, very visible strokes and juxtaposed colors that give the sensation of a vibration of light, as is sometimes seen (but with less systematic application) in some of Toulouse-Lautrec's oil paintings on cardboard, particularly in his Woman with Black Boa and Woman with Gloves. In general, however, Munch's studies of nudes, which became quite numerous at this period, cannot be ranked among his best works.

Karl Jensen-Hjell

Henry Kessler

Harry Graf Kessler


Walter Rathenau

Cuatro ninas en Aasgaardstrand

Birgitte Prestoe

Birgitte Prestoe

Portrait of Aase and Harald Norregaard



He is more interesting when he permits his ideas on the nature of woman to appear through his engravings and lithographs. Munch, who lived in an age in which women still kept their long hair, always saw in it both an attribute of their beauty and a dangerous instrument of seduction in which men are trapped as in a net. The drawing entitled The Kiss of Death, in which a death's head embraces a woman whose long hair is entwined around its skeletal neck, is an extremely violent expression of his pessimistic vision. In less macabre fashion, The Vampire (1894) and Sin (1901) are symbolized by women with long red hair falling over their shoulders. This is consistent with the fact that Munch was always strongly attracted to red-haired women. We shall later examine a particular case in which this attraction was reversed, in his behavior, into flight.


In a series of lithographs done in 1896, Attraction I, Attraction II, Liberation I, and Liberation II, woman's hair seems to embody in concrete form the emotional bond that is created or broken between man and woman. In Attraction they are facing each other, and the woman's long hair envelops the man's shoulders. Liberation brings a certain distance between the two beings; they turn their backs on each
other, but the now unusually long hair crosses this space horizontally and breaks loose from the man's shoulders. These images can be compared with a color woodcut of the same year entitled Mans Head Entangled in a Woman's Hair and a lithograph, also of 1896, entitled Lovers in the Waves, in which the man's head rests on the shoulder of a woman whose hair, floating over the waves, follows their undulating movement.
In moments of more serene sensuality, the long, flowing locks merely participate in the idealization of the beloved woman. When in 1903 Munch did the portrait of the English violinist Eva Mudocci, entitled Madonna — the Brooch and one of his most beautiful lithographs, he drew her luminous face, framed in the black flood of her hair, with visible love. She appears again in The Violin Concert, drawn with the same admiring tenderness. Suddenly, however, she is identified with her criminal sisters in a lithograph in which the head of Munch himself rests on the shoulder of the violinist, whose hair falls over the painter's forehead. The title of the print, Salome, makes its meaning abundantly clear.

Attraction I

Liberation I


Lovers in the Waves

Madonna — the Brooch

Salome (Eva Mudocci and Munch)

Rose and Amelie

The crisis of 1908

Munch's anguished nature, his inner conflicts, emotional difficulties, and obsessions, so often reflected in his art, to say nothing of his tendency to alcoholism, undoubtedly predisposed him toward the crisis that in the fall of 1908 brought him to Professor Jacobson's neurological clinic in Copenhagen for a sojourn of seven or eight months. Munch's psychological problems seem not to have been the subject of very enlightened study by his biographers. They are satisfied to speak in vague terms of a « nervous crisis » or «depression,» without supplying any information about its true nature and without examining any medical records.
Since we were unsuccessful in our efforts to obtain precise documentation on this question from the Munch Archives, we must limit ourselves to a tentative explanation, which is not sufficient to precisely define the pathological characteristics of his case, but which will enable us to understand some of the links established between his behavior and certain peculiarities of his aesthetic system.
We have seen that in the events of his life, as well as in his most consistent ideological preoccupations, death played a major role as a source of anxiety and as a stimulus to his creative activity. Among the events that operated within this dual perspective, the tragic death of Dagny Juell Przybyszewska had left an indelible mark on him. Another event to which we must refer is an episode in his life that occurred in the fall of 1902.
Munch was then living in Aasgaardstrand. For more than four years he had been trying to escape from a relationship with a young Norwegian woman, about whom we know only that she had red hair, was the daughter of a rich businessman in Christiania, and, being madly in love with the painter, was determined to marry him. But he stubbornly refused, for the reason, he said, that her position as a wealthy woman was humiliating for him with his still very uncertain resources. To achieve her purpose, she concocted a plot with the help of some of Munch's friends. One day his friends came to tell him that she was dead. They took the painter by boat to the other bank of the fjord, and to a house in Droebak. The young woman's seemingly lifeless body, with her long red hair falling over her shoulders, was lying on a bed in the room in which the macabre setting had been prepared. Munch gazed with great emotion at the woman he had loved. But when she suddenly sat up, convinced that in his joy at seeing her «resurrected» he would no longer refuse to marry her, he took it amiss, furious at the trick they had played on him.

Upon his return to Aasgaardstrand a violent argument broke out between him and his friends, during which a shot was fired, wounding Munch in the left hand and leading to the loss of a finger joint when surgery was performed at the Christiania hospital. The effects of this drama remained with Munch for some years. It was as if all his customary reasons for seeing in woman the incarnation of the spirit of evil had now been justified and proven. Throughout his life he remained single.
Apart from the special mental climate this reveals, a consideration of Munch's aggressive nature sheds light on the consequences of the Droebak affair. The quarrel at Aasgaardstrand was not an isolated incident. In 1904 he created a scandal in Copenhagen by arguing in public with the writer Andreas Haukland. In 1905 he had a nasty quarrel with the painter Ludvig Karsten, whose portrait he had painted that same year. If we accept the idea that aggressiveness is an outward manifestation of the death instinct, and that an obsession with persecution is a projection onto others of one's own aggressiveness, it is understandable that Munch ultimately sank into a permanent state of fear and distrust of those around him, in which his friends became his «enemies,» eager to persecute him.
A few echoes of his sojourn at Professor Jacobson's clinic appear in drawings, prints, and a portrait of Jacobson done in 1909. In The Madwoman, a lithograph of 1908-1909, a standing woman seems to be talking with her shadow, which rises before her. Munch also did the portrait of the professor's assistant, Miss Schacke, in a very pretty dry-point profile entitled The Nurse, and illustrated the tale Alpha and Omega in a series of amusing drawings, a rather surprising work to come from the hand of an artist so little inclined toward humor. Lastly, he did his own portrait, in lithograph and paint, and that of the Danish author Helge Rode.
Thus his stay at the clinic did not interrupt his artistic activity for any length of time. Shortly after his cure he undertook a long series of major works, and his disturbances apparently never returned.
Nevertheless, we have some reason to believe that his crisis of 1908 was a serious one, and that it marks a total break in the development of his work.
We know very little about his medical treatment in Copenhagen. A caricature of him made at the clinic does not supply much information. Munch has depicted himself seated near a table on which stand two electrical apparatuses. Near him a nurse — undoubtedly Miss Schacke — holds a wire leading from one of these devices, and she is handing it to Professor Jacobson, who applies the end to the painter's head. At the top of the page are three lines in Munch's handwriting: «Professor Jacobson is electrifying the famous painter Munch, and is bringing a positive masculine force and a negative feminine force to his fragile brain.» The fanciful explanation given here by Munch — and the reference to his personal ideas on the positive-negative antagonism of the sexes — nevertheless leads us to believe that he was subjected to the application of one of those methods that, long before the practice of electroshock (which was then unknown), attempted to treat by electricity certain diseases that today would be treated with psychiatric and psychoanalytic techniques.

Munch also alludes to this in a letter written from the clinic to his friend Jaffe Nilsson.

«I was on the verge of cracking up. You remember at Grand six years ago — you had noticed how far gone I was, and since then I have been doing nothing but existing in a state of tension and anxiety, which just had to burst out. And the outbreak was violent. After a trip to Sweden and after four days with Sigurd Mathiesen in the paradise of alcohol I had a genuine nervous depression and probably a slight attack — when you're constantly going over and over the same thing in your mind the brain is damaged. They're giving me electrical treatments and massages, and I'm making a good recovery in the peace and quiet, cared for by lovable nuns and a friendly doctor.»

If we look at Munch's entire output during his long development (in 1909 he had 35 years of life ahead of him), we are obliged to say that everything in his painting that bears the mark of his genius — that plunge into the dark recesses of the human being, which he expresses with a gripping power, those portraits in which the model's thought seems to be laid bare by his scrutinizing eye, those landscapes in which the outbreak and sadness of winter echo each other like the successively charming and poignant motifs of a symphony — was done before 1908.
To be sure, in later years we still encounter an interesting painting or a pretty watercolor from time to time, but nothing truly remarkable was to be added in the work he constantly produced, nothing new in the basic personality his work revealed. He occasionally repeated his early themes, as if to renew his links with his past, but he was never again to recover that quality that had made them profoundly original.
Did he himself have the feeling that something had changed in his powers of expression? Or was he thinking only of his behavior in life when he wrote that he viewed his stay at the clinic «as the end of one period of my life»? But he had also written, with great lucidity, «These weaknesses that I shall retain are part of me. I should not want to reject my illness, because my art owes a great deal to it.»

La mujer


Aesthetic disorder

The first two paintings by Munch to reveal in extremely striking; fashion a break with his pictorial past are the Portrait of Professor Jacobson and the Self-Portrait in a Blue Suit, both painted in 1909. In order to understand what differentiates them completely from the paintings that had brought the artist's personality to fruition prior to 1908, it must be observed that in the earlier paintings — both the most typically Expressionist ones and those in which he tended toward an older, more classical style — Munch's work always had the appearance of a painting executed in an atmosphere of reflection. His attention to the general movement of the composition, the harmony of the colors, and the technique of the stroke testified to an aesthetic system under complete mastery. Munch's disturbed, anxious, pessimistic nature was constantly in evidence, but it was not violent. On the contrary: in the works of his most coloristic period (The Virginia Creepers), the 1900 portrait Laura, the landscapes of 1900-1902, sometimes bordering on the Art Nouveau stvle) a certain softness dominated form.

The Virginia Creepers

Hombre y mujer

Women in Three Stages

Now, however, the painting suddenly gushed forth onto the canvas in a ruthless and disorderly manner. The rapid, broad brush strokes in which the color is crushed on in abrupt impastos produced the fulgurating vision of the Portrait of Professor Jacob son (Munch Museet, Oslo). This energy, to which we were not accustomed on the part of this painter, makes an irritating impression on us by the strange disharmony of the coloring, in which reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and blacks are most unsuccessfully juxtaposed. We are far from the daring but not clashing chromatism of The Scream, and still farther from the refinement of The Sick Child.
The same is true of the Self-Portrait in a Blue Suit (Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen), in which the painter's face is as if mangled by splashes of color. It is as if the violence of which we find numerous examples in Munch's life, and of which he had been cured by his sojourn at the clinic, had been suddenly carried over into his painting. But if such a process was beneficial for his mental condition, it was to the detriment of his art.
He himself had begun the tranquil life for which the clinic had been an apprenticeship. He emphasized its conditions with a certain humor and, perhaps, a touch of sadness: « Cigars without nicotine — drinks without alcohol — women without sex. » In a letter to his aunt he showed a resolve to choose the path of wisdom:
I also see very clearly that I must make a systematic effort to overcome my nervous weakness, which is a consequence of the years of persecution by that evil woman. I have finally understood that all my violent scenes were simply the morbid expression of those sufferings that lasted for so many years. I wish to find a corner of absolute tranquillity so that I can paint in peace.
He found, or thought he found, this corner of «absolute tranquillity* first at Skrubben, near Krageroe, where he stayed during the winter of 1910 and the spring of 1911, and then at Hvitsten, where he worked for a time. Ultimately he settled at Ekely, in the suburbs of Oslo, where in 1916 he purchased a piece of land, and where he was to die.
Yet the works he painted from this time on were extraordinarily agitated in style. Children in the Street (1910; Munch Museet, Oslo) combines all the characteristics of this agitation: painting without draftsmanship and without structure, and bright color consisting in large part of pure paint hurled onto the canvas in broad, thick, isolated stains. The same chaotic dispersion appears in The Murderer (1911; Munch Museet, Oslo), in which the trails of light and dark paint seem to have been applied haphazardly, and the central figure with its green face and red hands stands out against a landscape background that has been roughly sketched in.
The best of these unrestrained paintings is the Galloping Horse of 1912 (Munch Museet, Oslo), the very subject of which seems to be representative of the new manner of painting, which is helpful here in reinforcing the notion of movement. In Self-Portrait in Orange and Lilac (Munch Museet, Oslo), also painted in 1912, the violence of the coloring would almost lead us to regard it as a «Fauve» work, but one done in a rather Impressionist technique and in a helter-skelter mixture of colors that borders on the vulgar.

Galloping Horse

Muchacha lavandose

Alameda con copos de nieve

Casa en claro de luna


The Storm

Las cuatro edades


Frieze of Life: Longing


Frieze of Life: Summer Night

Street in Asgardstrand


Navidades en el burdel


Red Creeper