Edvard Munch is among the most recognized artists of all time. His haunting images continue to resonate generations after he made them and often seem more relevant to today’s existential concerns. And yet the artist, who hoarded most of his prolific output until his death at age 80 in 1944, constantly battled depression, with a morbid fixation on thoughts of death and madness. He created some of the most romantic and sensual works of art yet was never able to form a satisfying love relationship.
Unlike Van Gogh — who, along with Gauguin, influenced Munch — he benefited from popularity in his lifetime. In recent times his coveted work has been subject to repeated theft, and in 2012 one of four pastels on cardboard of his “Scream” — a painting recognized even by those who never took an art history class — broke a record when it sold for nearly $120 million.
“Scream” screams not only from T-shirts, posters, and advertisements all over the world but is a well-recognized symbol for madness. Psychology textbooks use Munch imagery to illustrate different categories of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
A poster of Munch’s “Madonna,” depicting a femme fatale in sensual rapture, framed by snaking spermatozoa and a fetus — symbolizing, for Munch, the unwanted life that originates from sexual pleasure — is screaming across the Princeton University campus to announce “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print,” opening at Princeton University Art Museum on Saturday, February 8.
Twenty-six etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art show Munch as one of the greatest printmakers of the modern era, from his formative years to his triumphant exhibitions of the “Frieze of Life,” which included variations of his best known paintings on the themes of love, anxiety, sexuality, and death, distilled from memories of his tragic past.
“Printmaking allowed the artist to reach a broader audience than his paintings alone could,” says Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings, who wrote the didactics and organized the exhibition according to techniques employed. “In addition it provided Munch with a seemingly endless range of techniques through which to express universal themes.”
Munch, born in 1863, is noted for developing symbolism, which began as a literary movement in Paris in the 1880s, and influencing German expressionism, with its interest in psychological exploration. A lot of his angst can be traced to his childhood. Raised in Oslo — then Kristiana — Norway, Edvard Munch was the son of a doctor and military officer. His much younger mother, with whom the young Munch was very close, died from tuberculosis when he was 5. His sister Sophie died a few years later from tuberculosis, another sister was institutionalized for mental illness, and a brother died of pneumonia.
The artist was often sick as a child and stayed home from school, drawing. His father tutored him in English and history, telling vivid ghost stories and tales from Edgar Allan Poe. The elder Munch was a fanatic fundamentalist Christian. “From him I inherited the seeds of madness,” wrote the son. “The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”
His father created an oppressive religious milieu, telling his children their mother was looking down from heaven and grieving over their misbehavior. All this led to macabre visions and nightmares.
In 1879 Munch began attending a technical college to study engineering but left only a year later when his passion for art overtook his interest in engineering. The following year, much to his father’s disappointment, Munch left the college determined to become a painter. His father viewed art as unholy. In 1881 Munch enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art and Design and received more paternal ire for his relationship with Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who advocated suicide as the ultimate path to freedom. Following the Academy Munch was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris, where he encountered the paintings and lithographs of Gauguin and abandoned his impressionist painting style for a bold, introspective form of symbolism.
By 1883 Munch was an established painter, having shown in Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, and Berlin. As he developed some of his most iconic pictorial themes, he was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Berlin Artist’s Association in 1892. Because of the work’s provocative subject matter, and a rawness confused with the unfinished, outraged members of the association closed it after a week.
“The subject matter was salacious, with a morbid quality,” says Brown. “He was thought to be too radical and insane.”
At the same time, other artists were sparked by Munch’s bold work.
Munch’s father died of a stroke in 1889, leaving the family destitute. It unhinged Munch, and he was gripped with remorse that he had not been with his father when he died.
Munch sold few of his paintings and supported himself by charging admission to exhibitions. In order to increase his income, he started with intaglio techniques: etching, aquatint, and drypoint. “He was interested in distilling his memories of the past with universal conditions of humanity,” says Brown.
When Munch painted “The Sick Child,” his memorial to his dying sister, it was common practice in Norway to paint deathbed portraits. Tuberculosis was associated with vampirism before the bacillus causing it was identified in 1882. It was an endemic disease of the urban poor, spreading from one family member to another. In the 1800s nearly 25 percent of all deaths in Europe were attributed to tuberculosis.
“His first major theme was love — its origin and development and ultimate demise. He had six paintings that correspond to the various states of love,” says Brown.
“The Kiss” depicts a nude couple embracing, arms entwined, in a darkened room before an open window. Their passion allows them to melt into a single mass, oblivious to the people walking the streets below. “The contrasts between light and dark, public and private, give this image the psychological tension of a clandestine passion that would have shocked traditional Victorian sensibilities,” writes Brown. “Both Rodin and Klimt also worked with this trope.”
By 1895, Munch started revisiting his key themes with lithography, which enabled him to include more color. He printed “The Sick Child I,” “Madonna,” and “Vampire II” in 1895, then a year later produced lithographs derived from his paintings “Anxiety” and “Death in the Sick Room.”
“Vampire literature was huge in Victorian times,” Brown says, with the publication of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897. “The femme fatale is so alluring; she uses her physical beauty to entrap people.” Munch first experimented with the vampire theme in a painting of a seductive woman kissing the neck of a man in 1893, then reproduced it as a lithograph two years later, and again in 1902, adding color woodcuts to accentuate the sallow candle light and add red to the woman’s flowing hair.
“Anxiety,” like “Scream,” depicts people with ghostly faces walking at the edge of the Kristiana fjord at sunset. Munch wrote of the psycho-biographical subject: “I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.” With all the tragedies befallen him, Munch felt powerless against the forces of nature.
As a contemporary of Freud, Munch believed his paintings relating his dreams of divine universal psychological states were tantamount to Freud’s “talking cures,” according to Brown.
It was after seeing Gauguin’s “Noa Noa” prints that Munch began to experiment with color woodcuts, expanding his vision of what printmaking could do. Munch’s woodcuts were often made from pine or other soft woods weathered to impart a grain or texture. Munch developed his own technique, sawing the finished woodblocks into puzzle-like pieces, inked each separately in different colors, then reassembled them before print so that the figures appear disassociated from each other and their surroundings.
The theme of a forlorn man and a dominating woman fascinated him. Munch had two great failed romances, first with Millie Thaulow, the wife of a distant cousin with whom he met clandestinely for two years. He was tormented after the breakup. In “Jealousy II” he depicts a jealous man as he meditates on a seductively draped female nude engaging the attentions of a fully dressed man beneath the branches of an apple tree. In a painting he made of the subject earlier, the female reaches for and picks the bright red apple, an obvious reference to the fall of Adam and Eve.
In 1898 Munch began a relationship with Tulla Larsen, a progressive woman whose father was a wealthy wine merchant. She wanted to marry, but he was afraid to commit because he wanted to remain dedicated to his art. He was afraid of bringing newborn life into a bleak world. “Like Rodin he was afraid marriage would rob artistic and newfound independence,” says Brown. Larsen left him and married another artist. Munch took it as a betrayal and dwelled on the humiliation.
“Ashes II” is another expression of jealousy or regret. A man bows down as he remembers a former relationship with a woman with flowing red hair emerging from the woods where they went to have their affair.
“Melancholy,” “Jealousy,” “Despair,” “Anxiety,” “Death in the Sickroom,” and “The Scream” were all part of “The Frieze of Life” series. His style varies dramatically, depending on the kind of emotion he sought to convey.
Ten years after being kicked out of the Berlin salon, his work was now coveted and collectible. He was invited into the Armory Show in the U.S. A friend of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Munch had become a household name.
Munch also took commissions to do portraits. “He was like Alice Neel, trying to derive an emotional state from a sitter,” says Brown.
In 1908, hearing voices and having hallucinatory paralysis, Munch collapsed and checked into a sanitarium. He cut back on drinking, regained mental stability, and got back to his easel, but most art historians agree his greatest work was behind him. “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print” is bracketed between his 1892 rejection from the Berlin exhibit to his final success in Berlin in 1902.
Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton. Saturday, February 8, through Sunday, June 8, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. www.princetonartmuseum.org or 609-258-3788.
On Thursday, March 27, at 5:30 p.m. Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings at PUAM, and Starr Figura, associate curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art, discuss the ground-breaking prints of Edvard Munch and their influence on the 20th century. A reception follows.