Edvard Munch

From New World Encyclopedia

The Scream. 1893. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard. National Gallery, Oslo.

Edvard Munch (IPA: [ˈɛdvɑɖ muŋk]) (December 12, 1863 – January 23, 1944) was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker, and graphic artist, who was also an important forerunner in the school of art known as Expressionism.

The Scream (1893; originally called Despair) is perhaps his most famous work and was stolen twice; it is one of the most recognizable and iconic images in Modern art. The Scream was one of several pieces in a series titled The Frieze of Life, in which Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, death, and melancholy.

Munch's art vividly and often disturbingly reflects the angst and dread that modern humans feels when the soul is in conflict with the natural surroundings and the divine during humanity's journal through the twentieth century; a century rife with world war, conflict, and the stress of modern day industrialism. Munch's dark portrayals of humanity's inner turmoil were often met with controversy; however, Munch is currently regarded as one of Scandinavia's most influential artists.



Munch was born in Ådalsbruk, Norway, and grew up in Kristiania (now Oslo). He was related to painter Jacob Munch (1776 - 1839) and the historian Peter Andreas Munch (1810 – 1863). He lost his mother, Laura Cathrine (Bjølstad) Munch, to tuberculosis in 1868, and his older and favorite sister, Sophie (Johanne Sophie), to the same disease in 1877, at the age of fifteen. Ultimately his father, Christian Munch, died young as well, in 1889. Munch also had a brother, (Peter) Andreas (1865) and two younger sisters, Laura Cathrine (1867) and Inger Marie (1868). After their mother's death, the Munch siblings were raised by their father, who instilled in his children a deep-rooted fear of God by repeatedly telling them that if they sinned in any way, they would be doomed to hell without the chance of forgiveness. One of Munch's younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Munch himself was often sickly as a child, causing him to later reflect, "Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life."[1]

Studies and influences

Munch's father discouraged him from studying art so, in 1879, he enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. He eventually left school to study painting. His pursuit of painting led him to form a camaraderie with a circle of bohemian artists strongly influenced by the anarchist writer Hans Jaeger. Subsequently, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania and studied under the naturalistic painter Christian Krohg.

While stylistically influenced by the post-impressionists, Munch's subject matter is symbolist in content and depicts a state of mind rather than an external reality. Interested in portraying not just a random slice of reality, but situations teeming with emotional substance and expressive energy, Munch carefully calculated his compositions to create an intense atmosphere. He once said of his art, "My art is rooted in a single reflection. Why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?" He further noted, "My art gives meaning to my life."[2]

Although technically he built on earlier artists, such as Van Gogh and Gauguin, his work also marked a radical departure from starry skies and sunflowers. It was the psychological content of his paintings that was to set him apart from other artists of his time.


Munch's artwork evolved as an internally expressive medium throughout his life. In the 1880s, Munch's style was both naturalistic, as seen in Portrait of Hans Jæger, and impressionistic, as in Rue Lafayette. In 1892, Munch formulated his characteristic and original blending of styles, known as synthetism, which emphasizes two-dimensional flat patterns. This style can be seen in his work, The Scream, painted in 1893, which demonstrates the heavy use of color as a bold symbolic element.

Death in the Sickroom. c. 1895. Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 59 x 66 in. National Gallery, Oslo.

During the 1890s, Munch painted a shallow pictorial space, as a minimal backdrop for his frontal figures. His subjects' poses were arranged to produce reflections of their state of mind and psychological feelings. In the picture, Ashes, the figures impart a looming, stationary quality. Munch's figures almost appear to play roles on a stage. In Death in the Sick-Room, the people represent various emotions; each character embodying a single psychological state. As in The Scream, Munch's men and women appear more symbolic than realistic.

In 1892, the Union of Berlin Artists invited Munch to participate in an exhibition at the Prussian capital. His more than 50 oil paintings evoked bitter controversy. Described as immoral and anarchic, the exhibition closed after one week. However, controversy brought Munch new opportunity as well. In Germany, Munch became involved with an international circle of writers, artists, and critics. In protest against the closure, Max Liebermann, Ludwig von Hofmann, Curt Herrmann, and their friends formed Gruppe XI in 1892. Six years later, this gave way to the founding of the Berlin Secession and while in Austria, Gustav Klimt started the Vienna Secession. During this period, he was strongly influenced by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg whose dramatic plays were kindred in spirit to Munch's art. Another one of his supporters while in Berlin was Walter Rathenau, later the German foreign minister, whose support contributed greatly to his success.

While in Berlin, Munch experimented with a variety of new media (photography, lithography, and woodcuts), in many instances re-working his older paintings. Munch often painted several versions of his pictures, and had prints made of them, in an attempt to make his work accessible to a larger public.

In 1908, after the breakup of a disastrous love affair, Munch reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and, returning to Scandinavia, entered a clinic in Copenhagen. The therapy Munch received while there seemed to bring about a change in his creative orientation and works after this period are resultantly less pessimistic. Re-settled in his native country, he sought inspiration in the Norwegian landscape and from the simple pleasures and mundane work of farmers and laborers. (Of his new found peace, he would later say that he simply abandoned his twin vices of women and alcohol.)

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

At the 1892 Berlin exhibition, Munch displayed, among other pieces, six paintings entitled Study for a Series: Love. These, paintings were to become a part of a series he would title the Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death. From its inception, Munch worked intermittently on The Frieze for a period of thirty years. Although completed in 1893, it was not displayed as an entire unit until 1902, when it was shown at the Berlin Secessionist exhibition.

The themes in Frieze of Life portray the psychological forces that influence man in the cycle of life from birth to death. Motifs such as those shown in The Storm and Moonlight are steeped in melancholy. Other themes illuminate the dark and foreboding side of love, such as Rose and Amelie and Vampire—another controversial painting.

The Frieze of Life themes recur throughout Munch's work, as in the paintings The Sick Child, a memorial to his deceased sister, Sophie (1886). He explored this theme repeatedly by painting several versions of it, and once said that this picture, although derided by critics, heralded a "breakthrough" for him. He also said of it, "most of my later work had its origin in this picture."[3] Characteristically, Munch was undeterred by criticism of his art.

In Death in the Sickroom (1893), the subject is, once again, the death of his sister Sophie. The dramatic focus of the painting portrays his entire family as a series of separate and disconnected figures of sorrow. In 1894, he enlarged the range of this motif by adding Anxiety, 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 highlighting 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" story 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 pious but severe Christian upbringing. Munch was also an avid reader of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the Russian novelist, whose works dramatized religious, moral, political, and psychological issues.

Later life

In the 1930s and 1940s, the National Socialists—under German chancellor Adolf Hitler—branded Munch's paintings as "degenerate art," and removed his work from German museums. His paintings were taken to Berlin to be auctioned. Harald Holst Halvorsen, the Norwegian art dealer, acquired several of them, including the 1907 version of The Sick Child, with the goal of returning them to Oslo. In 1939, it was purchased by Thomas Olsen and donated to the Tate Gallery collection in London.

Munch built a studio at his home in Skøyen, Oslo, where he spent the last decades of his life.[4] On his 70th birthday he was bestowed with the Grand Cross of St. Olav from the government of Norway. Later, Norway would be occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, and Munch, consequently, lived out his final years under foreign rule. He died at his home on January 23, 1944, a month after his 80th birthday. He willed 1,000 paintings, 15,400 prints, 4,500 drawings and watercolors, and six sculptures to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum at Tøyen. The museum houses the broadest collection of his works.


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

One version of The Scream, valued at about $55 million, was stolen in 1994, another in 2004. Both have since been recovered, but one version sustained damage during the theft that is too extensive to repair completely.

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.

The internet search engine company Google celebrated his birthday in 2006 by changing the logo on the main page to a tribute to his well-known painting, The Scream.

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

Further reading

  • Prideaux, Sue, Behind the Scream. Yale University Press (2006) Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, 2006. ISBN 0300110243
  • Heller, Reinhold. Munch. Murray (1984). ISBN 0719541166
  • Holland, J. Gill. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour out of the Earth University of Wisconsin Press (2005). ISBN 0299198146
  • Dolnick, Edward. 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). ISBN 0060531177

List of major works

  • 1892: Evening on Karl Johan
  • 1893: The Scream
  • 1894: Ashes
  • 1894-95 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
  • 1940-42: Self Portrait: Between Clock and Bed


  1. "Edvard Munch," in Encyclopedia of World Biography (Gale Research, 1998).
  2. Michael Gibson, Symbolism (Taschen America, 1997).
  3. Ibid.
  4. H.B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (University of California Press). ISBN 0-520-05256-0

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • "Edvard Munch." In Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Gale Group, 1999.
  • "Edvard Munch." In Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale Research, 1998.
  • "Edvard Munch." In International Dictionary of Art and Artists. St. James Press, 1990. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2007.
  • Fineman, Mia. "Existential Superstar." Slate (magazine).
  • Gibson, Michael. Symbolism. Taschen America, 1997.
  • Prelinger, Elizabeth and Michael Parke-Taylor. The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. ISBN 0300069529

External links

All links retrieved February 12, 2024.


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