Monday, October 15, 2012

Edvard Munch: Illustrator of Maladies

Much of drama, depth and dance of Edvard Munch’s artistic output is because of sweet spot that he inhabits at the cusp of art, cinema and photography.  He was deeply grounded in lyricism of painting and sufficiently interested in the modern inventions of his time to create an eclectic idiom that could take the best bits of the both the world. He painted cinema and photographs and he was illustrator of many sensibilities and theories that were emerging at that time. Illustrators don’t occupy the high pedestal in the pantheon of modern art.  Photographs and cinemas are also  treated as inadequate to address the exalted cravings of an artist who picks up brush to deal with his or her creativity. Not so with Edvard Munch. His perspective tricks, borrowed heavily from cinema, lent him the urgency needed to sharp-focus the anxious core of his work. His photograph like depiction- ‘Death in Sick Room’ is a case in point, portrait of a stage or cinema screen (‘Dance of Life’ and ‘Ashes’) never degenerate into the lifelessness of camera output. He said "Photography will never compete with painting so long as the camera cannot be used in heaven or in hell." Edvard Munch took it upon himself to take the device in heaven and hell, mostly in hell. With all his modern tools and sensibilities he was ultimately an illustrator of maladies. 
 Dance of Life
Peter Schjeldahl from New Yorker Magazine gets it correct when he writes “His strongest works, dating from about 1890 to the early years of the last century, exalted pictorial functions—narrative and illustration—that were being combed out of modern painting as specialties more proper to literature and the popular arts.” This was aided and reinforced by his ‘ardent theatricality’. He was influenced by ‘French painting (Gauguin and Van Gogh), Scandinavian theatre (Ibsen and Strindberg), and German philosophy (Nietzsche)’. Furthermore, he was bound to be aware of the developments that were taking place in the field of psycho-analysis. These influences provided rich source for his dark repertoire. He was clued in to the deepest anxieties of his times as interpreted by the leading theories of his times. He had artistic wherewithal and imagination to bring them on canvas with stark directness. He was at his best when his canvas was a narrative which is something more than just depiction. One can get more out of his paintings if one sees at least some of them as a screen shot or a moment on the stage. However, camera or stage angle should be taken only as entry points as Munch with is ‘radically impure’ style goes on chiselling newer realities of his themes making them truly timeless. “His disdain for normal technique and finish, his love of long, somewhat slurpy brush strokes that were more stained than painted, made all the difference. They enable him to give new voice to the rawest emotions, to be dramatic without sentimentality, and to fuse process, subject and content” wrote another critic. His artistic eye made him keep on paring the details till the vision is distilled to the emotional core of the issue. He used the perspective given by the vocabulary of cinema and photography but gave his characters intense inner life. It is the amalgamation of direct representation of camera and radical impurity of a supreme artist that creates a melange of raw emotions that transcends limits both camera and canvas impose.  
Death in Sickroom

Edvard Munch was born in Norway in 1863, the son of an Army surgeon whose family was stalked by death and illness. When he was 5, his mother died of tuberculosis; nine years later, his sister Sophie succumbed to the disease, giving him potent memories for his Sick Room paintings. Another sister was institutionalized for insanity. Munch committed himself several times for treatment of alcoholism and depression and underwent electric shock therapy. Although he had drawn since childhood, he entered college in Kristiania (as Oslo was called until 1925) to study engineering. Soon after, he transferred to art school and became involved with the Kristiania Bohemians. Munch had a difficult relationship with his father who was severe in his religious beliefs. He had an affair with Millie Thaulow, the wife of his teacher, patron and distant cousin Frits Thaulow. The affair ended badly but gave him raw material for many of angst ridden paintings such as Ashes, Vampire. In 1885 Munch went to Paris and in 1889 enrolled in art school there. For the next two decades he spent most of every year in Germany, with summer trips to France and Scandinavia. He lived a long life and was active till the end that came in 1944. 

Apart from the collision of emerging science with primal art, jarring rush of Munch’s art come from other intersections. Robert Hughes has pointed out that Sigmund Freud’s notion that self is the product of a battle between insatiable desires and unyielding social structures has found expression in Munch.  Similarly he also explored the ‘junction between objective and subjective.’ All this resulted in a fertile arena where ‘personal achieves the velocity of the universal.’ It is this capacity of turning personal into universal that made a critic write that source of Munch’s longitivity is to “do with his extraordinary gift for coining both archetypes and shapes.’ The thrust of his art “took in such existential matters as birth, love, loss, emotional turmoil, the search for one's identity and the inevitable decline into death. In these paintings Munch struggled to render his own emotional and psychological traumas, including the deaths of his mother and older sister, as well as his doomed first real love affair, into universal images that resonated with the outside world. By so doing, he said, he hoped to "understand the meaning of life" and to help others gain similar insights.”

In this he was helped by his ‘self abnegating submission to the emotional truth’. Often his narratives border on melodrama, hence the talk of his ‘ardent theatricality.’ There is an element of hyperbole in painting. His self portrait on operation table is filled with exaggerated details- A nurse is holding a bowl filled with blood and a blood stain is expanding on the sheet. Similarly ‘Scream’ is nothing is an exaggerated expression of horror, anxiety or some kind of primal fear. He has been called ‘exuberant miserabilist’  who indulges in ‘exaggeration in service of truth’. “He has no shame when it comes to self-pity, hypochondria, jealousy or grief, is never too proud to confess to lust or depression. He is the friend who doesn't censor the story as the rest of us might, doesn't pretend to resignation or serenity or forgiveness. His emotions are open and energetically direct. His art is frankly invigorating” wrote Laura Cumming in Guardian. 

In being such a successful illustrator of human maladies, Edvard Munch prepared the ground for anxious sensibilities to be aesthetically pleasing. He taught the generations how to appreciate the beauty of loneliness, melancholia, rejection or other such afflictions. By making them alive on canvas he created an idiom of pain that captured the universal appeal of a highly individual artist. 

-Dhiraj Singh


  1. Very well written Dhiraj ! I too had written a piece on him that was published in Deccan Herald ( Sunday Magazine) . You may find it on my blog

  2. Very well written Dhiraj ! I too had written a piece on him that was published in Deccan Herald ( Sunday Magazine) . You may find it on my blog