Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Munch, Edvard, 1863-1944, Norwegian painter and graphic artist. He studied in Oslo and under Bonnat in Paris and traveled in Europe. He abandoned impressionism and in the 1890s, from a profound personal sense of isolation, visually examined such primal themes as birth, death, thwarted love, sex, fear, and anxiety. Stricken by tragedy (his mother and favorite sister died young, another sister was psychotic, and he feared for his own sanity), Munch transformed his own trauma into an exploration of universal themes, creating figurative images that are sometimes violent, sometimes tranquil and sorrowful. He also executed a masterful series of self-portraits. Munch's emotionally charged style is recognized as being of primary importance to the birth of German expressionism. Also during the 1890s, Munch's most productive period, he made a number of powerful and often shocking woodcuts, developing a new technique of direct and forceful cutting that served to revive creative activity in this medium.

Among Munch's strongest and best-known works are The Scream (1893), Vampire (1894), and The Kiss (1895). Reaction to his stark and sometimes fearsome images caused the closing of his first major exhibition held in Berlin in 1892. In 1909, after a severe mental illness, he returned from Germany to Norway, where he painted murals for the Univ. of Oslo and for an Oslo chocolate factory. His painting became brighter of palette and less introverted until the 1920s, when he again was moved to portray his dreadful anguish. All but a few of Munch's paintings, e.g. Summer Night's Dream (The Voice) (1893, Boston Mus. of Fine Arts), are in Norwegian collections.

See Munch: In His Own Words (2001), ed. by P. E. Tojner; The Private Journals of Edvard Munch (2005), ed. by J. G. Holland; biographies by O. Benesch (tr. 1960) and S. Prideaux (2005); studies by A. Moen (3 vol., 1956-58), W. Timm (tr. 1969), J. P. Hodin (1972), T. M. Messer (1973), G. Woll (2001), and K. McShine, ed. (2006).

Edvard Munch (December 12, 1863January 23, 1944) was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker, and an important forerunner of expressionistic art. His best-known composition, The Scream (1893 and 1910) (?) is one of the pieces in a series titled The Frieze of Life, in which Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, death, and melancholy. As here, he often painted several versions of the motif. Similar paintings include Despair and Anxiety.

The Frieze of Life themes recur throughout Munch's work, in paintings such as The Sick Child (1885), Munch vampire.jpg (1893-94), Munch Ashes.jpg (1894), and The Bridge. The latter shows limp figures with featureless or hidden faces, over which loom the threatening shapes of heavy trees and brooding houses. Munch portrayed women either as frail, innocent sufferers (see Puberty and Love and Pain) or as the cause of great longing, jealousy and despair (see Separation, Jealousy and Ashes). Some say these paintings reflect the artist's sexual anxieties, though it could also be argued that they are a better representation of his turbulent relationship with love itself.


Edvard Munch was born in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway to Christian Munch, a doctor and medical officer, and Laura Cathrine Bjølstad, who had married in 1861. He had an older sister, Johanne Sophie (born 1862), and three younger siblings: Peter Andreas (born 1865), Laura Cathrine (born 1867), and Inger Marie (born 1868), and was related to painter Jacob Munch (1776–1839) and historian Peter Andreas Munch (1810–1863).

The family moved to Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1864 when Christian Munch was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch's favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. After their mother's death, the Munch siblings were raised by their father, who instilled in his children a deep-rooted fear by repeatedly telling them that if they sinned in any way, they would be doomed to Hell without chance of pardon. One of Munch's younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Munch himself was also often ill. Of the five siblings only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch would later write, "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity—illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.

Studies and influences

In 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering, but frequent illnesses interrupted his studies. In 1880, he left the college to become a painter. In 1881, he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania. His teachers were sculptor Julius Middelthun and naturalistic painter Christian Krohg.

While stylistically influenced by the Post-Impressionists, Munch's subject matter is symbolist in content, depicting a state of mind rather than an external reality. Munch maintained that the Impressionist idiom did not suit his art. Interested in portraying not a random slice of reality, but situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy, Munch carefully calculated his compositions to create a tense atmosphere.


Munch's means of expression evolved throughout his life. In the 1880s, his idiom was both naturalistic, as seen in Portrait of Hans Jæger, and impressionistic, as in (Rue Lafayette). In 1892, Munch formulated his characteristic, and original, Synthetist aesthetic, as seen in Melancholy, in which colour is the symbol-laden element. Painted in 1893, The Scream is his most famous work.

During the 1890s, Munch favoured a shallow pictorial space, a minimal backdrop for his frontal figures. Since poses were chosen to produce the most convincing images of states of mind and psychological conditions (Ashes), the figures impart a monumental, static quality. Munch's figures appear to play roles on a theatre stage (Death in the Sick-Room), whose pantomime of fixed postures signify various emotions; since each character embodies a single psychological dimension, as in The Scream, Munch's men and women appear more symbolic than realistic.

In 1892, the Union of Berlin Artists invited Munch to exhibit at its November exhibition. His paintings evoked bitter controversy, and after one week the exhibition closed. In Berlin, Munch involved himself in an international circle of writers, artists and critics, including the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.

While in Berlin at the turn of the century, Munch experimented with a variety of new media (photography, lithography, and woodcuts), in many instances re-working his older imagery. One of his great supporters in Berlin was Walter Rathenau, later the German foreign minister, who greatly contributed to his success.

In 1897, Munch bought himself a summer house, a small fishermans cabin built in the late 1700s, in the small town of Åsgårdstrand in Norway. He dubbed this house the Happy House and returned here almost every summer for the next 20 years, a place where he also painted or drew inspiration from for many of his most famous works, including Girls on the Bridge (also known as Girls on a jetty) (1901), Melancholy (1892), The Voice (1892), The Scream (1892) and Jealousy (1895).

The cabin was given to the municipality of Åsgårdstrand in 1944 and works now as a small Munch museum. The inventory is still exactly as he left it.

In the autumn of 1908, Munch's anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking, had become acute. Subject to hallucinations and feelings of persecution, he entered the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. The therapy Munch received for the next eight months included diet and "electrification" (a treatment then fashionable for nervous conditions, not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy). Munch's stay in hospital stabilized his personality, and after returning to Norway in 1909 he showed more interest in nature subjects, and his work became more colourful and less pessimistic.

Later life

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch's work "degenerate art", and removed his work from German museums. This deeply hurt Munch, who had come to feel Germany was his second homeland. Munch built himself a studio and simple house at Ekely estate, at Skøyen, Oslo, and spent the last decades of his life there. He died there on January 23, 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday.

"From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."
—Edvard Munch


When Munch died, he bequeathed his remaining works to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum at Tøyen. The museum hosts a collection of approximately 1,100 paintings, 4,500 drawings and 18,000 prints, the broadest collection of his works in the world. The Munch Museum currently serves at Munch's official Estate and has been active in responding to copyright infringements, as well as clearing copyright for the work, such the appearance of Munch's The Scream in a 2006 M&M advertisment campaign. The U.S. copyright representative for the Munch Museum and the Estate of Edvard Munch is the Artists Rights Society.

Munch's works are now represented in numerous major museums and galleries in Norway and abroad. After the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China ended, Munch was the first Western artist to have his pictures exhibited at the National Gallery in Beijing.

One version of "The Scream" was stolen in 1994, another in 2004. Both have since been recovered, but one version sustained damage during the theft which was too extensive to repair completely.

In October 2006, the colour woodcut Two people. The lonely (To mennesker. De ensomme) set a new record for his prints when it was sold at an auction in Oslo for 8.1 million NOK (1.27 million USD). It also set a record for the highest price paid in auction in Norway.

Munch appears on the Norwegian 1,000 Kroner note along with pictures inspired by his artwork.

Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death

In December 1893, Unter den Linden in Berlin held an exhibition of Munch's work, showing, among other pieces, six paintings entitled Study for a Series: Love. This began a cycle he later called the Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death. Frieze of Life motifs such as The Storm and Moonlight are steeped in atmosphere. Other motifs illuminate the nocturnal side of love, such as Rose and Amelie and Vampire. In Death in the Sickroom (1893), the subject is the death of his sister Sophie. The dramatic focus of the painting, portraying his entire family, is dispersed in a series of separate and disconnected figures of sorrow. In 1894, he enlarged the spectrum of motifs by adding Anxiety, Ashes, Madonna and Women in Three Stages.

Around the turn of the century, Munch worked to finish the Frieze. He painted a number of pictures, several of them in larger format and to some extent featuring the Art Nouveau aesthetics of the time. He made a wooden frame with carved reliefs for the large painting Metabolism (1898), initially called Adam and Eve. This work reveals Munch's preoccupation with the "fall of man" myth and his pessimistic philosophy of love. Motifs such as The Empty Cross and Golgotha (both c. 1900) reflect a metaphysical orientation, and also echo Munch's pietistic upbringing. The entire Frieze showed for the first time at the secessionist exhibition in Berlin in 1902.

List of major works

  • 1892 - Evening on Karl Johan
  • 1893 - The Scream
  • 1894 - Ashes
  • 1894-1895 - Madonna
  • 1895 - Puberty
  • 1895 - Self-Portrait with Burning Cigarette
  • 1895 - Death in the Sickroom
  • 1899-1900 - The Dance of Life
  • 1899-1900 - The Dead Mother
  • 1940-1942 - Self Portrait: Between Clock and Bed


See also



  • Chipp, H.B. Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, page 114. University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-05256-0
  • Eggum, A., & Munch, E. (1984). Edvard Munch: paintings, sketches, and studies. New York: C.N. Potter. ISBN 0517556170

Further reading

  • Sue Prideaux, Behind the Scream (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, 2006
  • Reinhold Heller, Munch. His life and work (London: Murray, 1984).
  • Gustav Schiefler, Verzeichnis des graphischen Werks Edvard Munchs bis 1906 (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1907).
  • Gustav Schiefler, Edvard Munch. Das graphische Werk 1906–1926 (Berlin: Euphorion, 1928).
  • J. Gill Holland The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour out of the Earth (University of Wisconsin Press 2005)
  • Edward Dolnick The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece (HarperCollins, 2005) (Recounts the 1994 theft of The Scream from Norway's National Gallery in Oslo, and its eventual recovery.)

External links

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