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Edvard Munch

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Edvard Munch, (born December 12, 1863, Löten, Norway—died January 23, 1944, Ekely, near Oslo), Norwegian painter and printmaker whose intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes built upon some of the main tenets of late 19th-century Symbolism and greatly influenced German Expressionism in the early 20th century. His painting The Scream, or The Cry (1893), can be seen as a symbol of modern spiritual anguish.


Early years

Edvard Munch’s The Scream, explained

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Munch was born into a middle-class family that was plagued with ill health. His mother died when he was five, his eldest sister when he was 14, both of tuberculosis; Munch eventually captured the latter event in his first masterpiece, The Sick Child (1885–86). Munch’s father and brother also died when he was still young, and another sister developed mental illness. “Illness, insanity, and death,” as he said, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”


Munch showed a flair for drawing at an early age but received little formal training. An important factor in his artistic development was the Kristiania Bohème, a circle of writers and artists in Kristiania, as Oslo was then called. Its members believed in free love and generally opposed bourgeois narrow-mindedness. One of the older painters in the circle, Christian Krohg, gave Munch both instruction and encouragement.


Munch soon outgrew the prevailing naturalist aesthetic in Kristiania, partly as a result of his assimilation of French Impressionism after a trip to Paris in 1889 and his contact from about 1890 with the work of the Post-Impressionist painters Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In some of his paintings from this period he adopted the Impressionists’ open brushstrokes, but Gauguin’s use of the bounding line was to prove more congenial to him, as was the Synthetist artists’ ambition to go beyond the depiction of external nature and give form to an inner vision. His friend the Danish poet Emanuel Goldstein introduced him to French Decadent Symbolist poetry during this period, which helped him formulate a new philosophy of art, imbued with a pantheistic conception of sexuality.


Tate Modern extension Switch House, London, England. (Tavatnik, museums). Photo dated 2017.

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Artistic maturity

Munch’s own deeply original style crystallized about 1892. The flowing, tortuous use of line in his new paintings was similar to that of contemporary Art Nouveau, but Munch used line not as decoration but as a vehicle for profound psychological revelation. The outraged incomprehension of his work by Norwegian critics was echoed by their counterparts in Berlin when Munch exhibited a large number of his paintings there in 1892 at the invitation of the Union of Berlin Artists. The violent emotion and unconventional imagery of his paintings, especially their daringly frank representations of sexuality, created a bitter controversy. Critics were also offended by his innovative technique, which to most appeared unfinished. The scandal, however, helped make his name known throughout Germany, and from there his reputation spread farther. Munch lived mainly in Berlin in 1892–95 and then in Paris in 1896–97, and he continued to move around extensively until he settled in Norway in 1910.


Paintings of love and death

At the heart of Munch’s achievement is his series of paintings on love and death. Its original nucleus was formed by six pictures exhibited in 1893, and the series had grown to 22 works by the time it was first exhibited under the title Frieze of Life at the Berlin Secession in 1902. Munch constantly rearranged these paintings, and if one had to be sold, he would make another version of it. Thus in many cases there are several painted versions and prints based on the same image. Although the Frieze draws deeply on personal experience, its themes are universal: it is not about particular men or women but about man and woman in general, and about the human experience of the great elemental forces of nature. Seen in sequence, an implicit narrative emerges of love’s awakening, blossoming, and withering, followed by despair and death.

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