Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a turn-of-the-century Norwegian artist, best known for his extremely personal brand of Symbolism, which helped lay the foundations for and proved a lasting influence on the later Expressionist school of art.
Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863, in the little town of Loten, Norway, as the 2nd of five children. His father was Christian Munch, a military doctor, and his mother Laura Cathrine Munch, née Bjolstad. Edvard had three sisters, Sophie, Laura and Inger, and one brother, Andreas. Although ostensibly middle class, the family had but modest means and often struggled financially.
In 1864, soon after Edvard’s birth, the family moved to Kristiania, the capital of Norway (the city would be renamed to "Christiania" in 1878 and again to "Oslo," its present name, in 1924). In 1868, Edvard’s mother died of consumption (tuberculosis) and her sister, Karen Bjolstad, took care for the children and the household upon herself. In 1877, Edvard’s elder sister Sophie also succumbed to tuberculosis. These two deaths greatly affected the future painter and echoes of the pain and despair he felt at the time would appear frequently in his work.
Although Munch was interested in painting since he was a boy, his family was not in love with the idea and urged him to acquire a more prestigious and profitable profession. In 1879, at the age of 16, he entered the Oslo Technical College with the idea of becoming an engineer. He pursued this field of study for little more than a year before deciding that his true calling was art and dropping out of the college. Soon thereafter, he enrolled for evening classes at the Royal Drawing School in Oslo. By 1881, he was studying there full-time.
Edvard Munch was a quick and able student. At the Royal Drawing School, he was considered one of the most gifted young artists of his day. In addition to his normal classes, Munch also began taking private lessons with Christian Krohg, an established artist and Great friend. He also attended the open-air summer school of Frits Thaulow at Modum.
In 1883, Munch exhibited at the Oslo Autumn Exhibition for initially. Over the next few years, he would become a regular participant.
Munch was exposed to a wide range of artistic influence during his formative period, which lasted from about 1880 to 1889. The painter often visited Kristiania’s (Oslo’s) rather modest National Gallery, and had an avid interest in contemporary art magazines. Like most of Northern, Eastern and Central Europe, Norway was considered culturally to be a provincial backwater and, like many of his colleagues and contemporaries, Munch traveled extensively to learn from both the rich painting traditions and the latest artistic developments of Europe’s enlightened West and South.
In 1885, the painter attended the World Exhibition at Antwerp and paid a brief visit to Paris, then considered the Mecca of contemporary art. Munch was certainly familiar with the work of the Impressionists, whose large exhibition in Paris he visited that year and again in 1888, when there was another such exhibition in Copenhagen. Certainly, a variety of influences can be seen in Munch’s work of the time, such as Maridalen by Oslo (1881), Self-Portrait (1881), Aunt Karen in the Rocking Chair (1883) and At the Coffee Table (1883). Conservative tastes reigned in Oslo at the time, and much of the painter’s work was poorly received by critics.
At home in Norway, the artist was part of a group of radical young intellectuals, which included both painters and writers and espoused a variety of political views, from anarchism to socialism to Marxism. Their ideas certainly influenced Munch’s own. However, the painter’s artistic focus would always remain on himself and his own subjective experiences, almost notoriously so. Thus, he often re-visited the tragic episode of his beloved sister’s sickness and death in such works as The Sick Child (1885-86) and Spring (1889).
This latter painting delighted the critics and paved the way, in 1889, for Munch’s 1st solo exhibition at Kristiania. That same year, he received a scholarship from the Norwegian government to study abroad. The artist traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the art school of Leon Bonnat. He also attended the major exhibitions, where he became familiar with the works of the Post-Impressionists. His own canvases of the time show considerable Impressionist influence: witness Rue Lafayette (1890) or Moonlight over Oslo Fjord (1891), painted during a brief return to Norway. On the other hand, Night in St. Cloud, a dramatic and highly emotional work, has all the characteristic traits of Naturalism.
In 1892, Munch visited Berlin, where he had been invited to exhibit by the Berlin Artists’ Association. The painter’s work was received very poorly, and the exhibition was closed down after only a few days, as the critics howled in outrage. Undeterred, the painter toured through Cologne and Dusseldorf, before returning once again to Berlin. As so often happens, the initial scandal attracted a great deal of attention to the artist, and he quickly found supporters and patrons. Munch stayed in Berlin for over a year. Many of his paintings found customers and he was at last able to make a comfortable living.
In the following years, he traveled throughout Europe, exhibiting in Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen and Stockholm. In 1896, he exhibited at the Parisian Salon des Independents for initially.
In 1888, Munch had discovered Asgardstrand, a seaside resort located about 50 miles away from Oslo, and rented a cottage there the following year. He would spend many summers there. In 1897, he finally purchased the house and established it as his home base, though he continued to travel extensively.
Munch’s work of the period is concerned with human life, love and death. The paintings are more and more concerned with melancholy and the darker emotions. Some of the most notable products of this time include: Moonlight (1893), Puberty (1894), The Day After (1894-95), The Kiss (1897) and Man and Woman (1898). Contrast the picture Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892) with his earlier, brighter Spring Day on Karl Johan (1890). The famous Scream (1893) — Munch produced several versions — also belongs to this period. The painter gathered these works into an ensemble he titled The Frieze of Life, which he exhibited in a series of European cities. Like so much of Munch’s previous work, this series of works had mixed reception among the critics and the public.
In 1903, the artist was commissioned by physician Dr. Max Linde to paint a number of decorative pieces for the children’s room in the doctor’s house. Munch produced eleven large canvases, depicting landscapes. Although Dr. Linde paid the artist in full, he was not completely satisfied with the results. The paintings, known as the Linde Frieze, stayed up for only eleven months before being taken down, stored and finally returned to the painter, from where they would find their way, separately, to a variety of museums and collections. Although the subjects of the paintings were quite tame, showing the beautiful Asgardstrand landscape, the doctor felt they were "unsuitable for children," perhaps because of the melancholy, brooding air that Munch seemed to unconsciously imbue his work with.
In 1906, Munch was commissioned by Max Reinhardt, the famous German theater director, to paint a decorative frieze for the Deutsches Theater. The painter had previously designed the stage set for Reinhardt’s production of Ghosts, by Henryk Ibsen. The frieze was intended to decorate one of the rooms at the theater. For it, Munch chose to use the same theme as he had for the Linde frieze, but, unconstrained currently, he peopled the landscape of Asgardstrand with vacationers and lovers. Works from the Reinhardt Frieze include: Asgardstrand, Two Girls, Couple on the Shore and, of particular note, The Lonely Ones. In total, the artist painted 12 canvases for this project.
While not rejected outright, the work was again received poorly although it is, arguably, some of Munch’s best. After only a few years, the room was re-decorated and the paintings taken down. The artist himself complained about the project, claiming that it had been a large amount of work for meager pay.
In fact, Munch was in dire financial straits at this time, which were not helped by his nerves, frail health and heavy drinking. In 1908, he suffered a breakdown, as a consequence of which he retired to his cottage at Asgardstrand, there to live in relative isolation and solitude for the next several years.
In 1909, Munch entered a competition to design murals for the Festival Hall at the Oslo University. His designs were chosen out of a number of competitors, not without controversy, after the University of Jena, Germany, offered to purchase the painter’s projects for themselves. The University of Oslo would not allow that and, in 1911, Munch was reluctantly given the job. The canvases, nine of them, 15 feet high each, with the largest spanning 38 feet in width, were finally unveiled in 1916 and easily rank among some of the artist’s best work. The most notable painting in this group is probably The Sun, together with Alma Mater and History.
Around this time, Munch purchased the estate of Ekely in a quiet suburb of Oslo, which he would make his permanent home in the coming years.
After 1920, Munch grew increasingly withdrawn from public life, limiting social contacts and carefully guarding his privacy. He lived alone, without a servant or housekeeper, with only several dogs for company, and devoted his days to painting. It was during this period, ironically, that he at last began to gain the recognition that had been denied him previously by both critics and public.
As early as 1912, Munch’s work had been exhibited alongside the works of such acclaimed Post-Impressionist painters as Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. The artist inspired great interest in Germany, which saw him as a vital link between the art world of Paris and the art world of Northern Europe.
Between 1920 and 1928, large exhibitions of his work were held in Berlin, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Dresden, Mannheim and Munich, as well as Copenhagen and Zurich. Works of this period include: style by the Wicker Chair (1919-21), The Wave (1921), style on the Couch (1924-28), The marriage of the Bohemian (1925) and Red House and Spruces (1927).
In 1930, a blood vessel in the painter’s eye burst, seriously impairing his vision. As a result, Munch was forced to paint much less than before. In 1933, major exhibitions were held in honor of the painter’s 70th birthday.
In 1936, the painter’s eye problems grew worse, and he was forced to abandon work on decorative friezes and murals. That year, Munch had his 1st exhibition in England, which had thus far not shared the enthusiasm with which the painter was greeted in Central and Northern Europe. Ironically, the attitude towards the painter in Germany, where the painter had 1st gained widespread recognition had changed for the worse. With the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933, artistic innovations began to be regarded negatively. In 1937, eighty-two of Munch’s paintings were declared "degenerate" and removed from museums. Many of these works found their way to the private collections of prominent Nazis, indicating that their personal views on Munch’s art were rather different from the official party line.
In 1940, Germany occupied Norway. The artist refused to be associated in any way with the Nazis and the Quisling puppet-government they set up in Norway, isolating himself in his country home. His dramatic self-portrait By the Window (1940) dates to this period. In the painting, a balding and aging Munch stares defiantly upwards at something beyond the canvas. In the window behind him, a tangled winter landscape contrasts sharply with the warm, ruddy colors of the interior and the painter’s face.
Following the USA’s entry into the 2nd World War in 1942, the painter’s anti-Nazi stance gained him recognition there as well. That year saw his 1st — and only — exhibition in the Americas, less than one and a half years before the artist’s death.
Edvard Munch died on January 23, 1944, at his estate in Ekely. He bequeathed all of his property, which included over 1,000 paintings and close to 20,000 sketches, woodcuts and lithographs, to the city of Oslo. The Munch Museum was subsequently opened there to mark the painter’s centenary, in 1963.
Biography by Yuri Mataev.
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