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The personal trauma that lies behind Edvard Munch’s unnerving art

He was fascinated by psychology and haunted by mental collapse

He was fascinated by psychology and haunted by mental collapse

At the start of the 20th century Sigmund Freud observed the psychological phenomenon of “repetition compulsion”, the pathological desire to repeat a pattern of behaviour over and over again. He no doubt would have diagnosed the painter Edvard Munch with such an affliction. As the British Museum’s new exhibition of his work demonstrates, Munch returned obsessively to certain visual motifs: uncanny sunsets, zombie-like faces, threateningly sexualised female bodies. 

Freud might have looked to Munch’s biography for the roots of his mental anguish. There is much to unpick. His mother died from tuberculosis in 1868 when he was five. Nine years later, his sister died of the same disease. At a time of rapid industrialisation and grinding urban poverty, tuberculosis was tragically common. Munch had to watch as his father, a doctor, desperately tried to save the lives of consumptive patients, often resorting to prayer when all else had failed. This, and the Lutheran strictures of Munch’s adolescence in conservative Kristiana (now Oslo), did little to encourage the healthy processing of Munch’s trauma. By the time he reached adulthood he longed to escape, and managed to do so by falling in with a bohemian set of radical artists and writers, including Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. He soon developed a visual style that cast aside the Scandinavian traditions of formal portraiture and stately landscapes, resulting in vivid and unnerving prints. 

Printmaking is by its very nature a process of repetition. There is also something almost violent about its technical vocabulary of acid bites, drypoint scratches and woodcut gouges. Possibly this appealed to Munch, as he printed, scraped, clawed and re-printed, the resulting image darkening with each new impression. The process enabled him to express his innermost thoughts. Many Symbolist artists of the fin-de-siècle were interested in depicting emotion, but few did so as compellingly and knowingly as Munch, who was both fascinated by the new science of psychology and haunted by the spectre of mental collapse. The picture that emerges from this exhibition is of a highly innovative craftsman and a deeply troubled human being.

“Self-portrait” (1895)

In this strikingly confident early print, Munch depicts himself leaning casually against the frame, his pallid face hovering preternaturally amid a dense thicket of black cross-hatch. His forearm, glowing as if irradiated, is nothing but bare bone. The name and date at the top of the heavy slab is reminiscent of a tombstone. This unsettling memento mori is an early instance of Munch’s lifelong preoccupation with the iconography of death. As much as they stem from his early traumas, these images find their roots in similar prints from the German Renaissance. “Skull Within an Ornamental Frame” (1510) by Hans Wechtlin hangs nearby, another chiaroscuro print that places a grim reminder of death within a tomb-like frame.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

“Head by Head” (1905)

Already by 1905, Munch had begun to master the expressive potential of print, using the woodgrain of the printing block to bind together this couple. At first glance the image is graceful and tender, two lovers surrounded by a humming aura of carved strokes. But while the woman’s eyes are closed in rapture, her partner turns his head away and looks into the middle distance, injecting ambiguity as to whether her trust is reciprocated. Munch was able to conjure up emotional tension even using the relatively simple medium of a woodcut.


“Vampire II” (1896)

This print is similarly equivocal, but with significantly heightened stakes. One of 12 versions of an image which Munch obsessively copied and reworked, it depicts “just a woman kissing a man on the neck” – or so he claimed. Munch’s friend, Stanisław Przybyszewski, a novelist, dramatist and Satanist, immediately identified the image as “a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face”. Like an ambiguous optical illusion, the image flickers between intimacy and violence. The strands of hair suggest mutually entangled warmth, and then trickling rivulets of blood. When women appear in Munch’s work they tend to be either sex objects, violently threatening or the butt of twisted jokes. 

The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

“Madonna” (1895/1902)

This image is further evidence of Munch’s disturbing attitude towards women. In his own description, he writes that it shows “woman in a state of surrender – where she acquires the afflicted beauty of a Madonna”. The subject has a shadow of a red halo, but is entirely passive, her eyes ecstatically closed, her arms and head tossed back. The image is framed, grotesquely, by sperm trailing long tails, ending in a blank-eyed, alien foetus. Munch’s own sexual relationships were various but short, and blighted by his fear of feminine power.


“The Scream” (1895)

The original “Scream” painting, which first appeared in 1893, remains in the National Museum in Oslo. This exhibition features a lithographic print from 1895, in which the tumultuous, blood-red clouds of the original are transposed into barometric lines of black and white. What this version loses in colourful intensity, it gains in the starkness of its panic. In black and white, the figure almost merges with the background, hinting at a terrifying loss of selfhood. The haunting, cupped-hands pose, the caption in this exhibition reminds us, may be drawn from the half-decayed Peruvian mummy which was on display at the Ethnological Museum in Paris. 

Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas Widerberg

“Towards the Forest II” (1897/1915)
In 1908 Munch, suffering from acute anxiety and alcoholism, was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen. On his return to Norway a few months later, his artistic priorities shifted, and he became interested in depicting the natural landscape. By 1916 he had bought an estate in rural Norway, where he would live until his death in 1944. In the three “Towards the Forest” prints which close this exhibition, the culmination of his technical skill as a printmaker coincides with, it seems, a measure of personal peace. The compositions show an embracing couple, stepping away from the viewer into unmistakably Scandinavian woodland. The scene is quietly harmonious. Munch’s reworking of the wood over the three impressions is less aggressive and more subdued. Finally, it appears, the repetition is at an end.


Edvard Munch: Love and Angst British Museum until July 21st 2019

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