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Edvard Munch: Self-Portraitist (Notes from a Diary)

Edvard Munch

by Thomas Messer
Abrams, 166 pp., $22.50

Edvard Munch: The Scream

by Reinhold Heller
Viking, 128 pp., $7.50


by Jean Selz, translated by Eileen Hennessy
Crown, 32 pp., $4.95

The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch

by Werner Timm, translated by Ruth Michaelis-Jena, by Patrick Murray
New York Graphic Society, 324 pp., $17.50

Edvard Munch

catalogue of the Arts Council of Great Britain, with forewords by Sir Kenneth Clark, by Knut Berg
72 (48 pages of plates) pp., unpriced

Edvard Munch

a film directed by Peter Watkins

December 1, 1975. Oslo. From my hotel room the pedestrians in Karl Johansgate seem to be walking as they do in a Munch picture, at approximately the same pace and without glancing to left or right, but whether they are also silent and grim-looking is impossible to tell in the midnight-dark of mid-morning. I am constantly being struck by scenes that remind me of Munch vignettes, and my discovery of the realistic element in this “subjective” painter is expanding in several directions. Thus the sightless windows in an old house seem to resemble those in The Red Vine, the sky to evoke the palette of the early Starry Night, and the blank expressions to recall some of Munch’s people, though I have yet to see one of his entirely featureless faces—like that of a hold-up man, or guerrilla, with a stocking over the head. Munch-like, too, is the unhopeful sky, which in early afternoon turns a deepening blue, with a squint of cold pink just before the abrupt “lights out.” An acquaintance with the artist’s physical world, and with its psychological effects on the inhabitants, must broaden the understanding of his work, yet Munch is more than a regional painter, the best of his creations being universal by virtue of both themes and artistic mastery.

December 2. On any itinerary the Oslo National Gallery should precede the Munch Museum. The older institution not only owns more of the artist’s greatest paintings, but also provides examples of contemporaneous work, notably by Hans Heyerdahl, whom Munch admired, and by Christian Krohg, whose classes Munch attended. A visit to the National Gallery reveals that Munch was not a totally isolated phenomenon, at least in his beginnings, and that a related style and recurrent subject matter already existed. Furthermore, his apparent preoccupation with illness and death becomes less morbid in the context of so many other sick-room and death-bed scenes—which indicate a high incidence of tuberculosis in the Christiania of the time. Finally, the gloomy, creaky-floored old building suggests the atmosphere of the artist’s early years, while the passionate posturings of the Rodinesque sculptures in halls and on landings are evidence of the repressions of a society in which Munch was exceptional only because of his genius.

The Munch Museum, at the other extreme, offers comfortable seats, is better lighted (even by an occasional sunbeam), and presents its collection in ample, uncluttered space—one aspect of an architecture that is incongruously neutral if not in actual conflict with the turbulent emotions of the art. An attraction of the museum is that the paintings are surrounded by lithographs, woodcuts, and drypoints of the same subjects, thus providing supplements, clues, variations, simplifications, all of inestimable importance in Munch’s case. Once this is said, however, it is necessary to add that his graphic work should be considered not merely as ancillary, but for its intrinsic merit—The Frieze of Life series, for example, being more nearly complete in engraved than in painted form.

Not many of Munch’s more than seven hundred graphics exactly duplicate the paintings, if only for the reason that the compositions are reversed. An example of a difference between a canvas and a lithograph is seen by comparing the painting Puberty (probably suggested by Félicien Rops’s La Plus Belle Amour de Don Juan, 1886) with The Young Maiden, which is the same picture executed in the other medium a year later. Here the expression of the nude girl with hands crossed in her lap—“to cover the object of her fear,” Thomas Messer 1 believes—is transformed to indicate feelings that anticipate the erotic curiosity of Balthus’s Georgette.

December 3. I rehearse the Oslo Philharmonic in the Aula, the university’s assembly hall and site of Munch’s celebrated murals (1909-1911).2 With a single exception these face each other on the sides of the rectangular room in symmetrical architectural frames. Having seen the tableaux only in photographs, I am astonished by their magnitude, by the resemblances to Max Beckmann in two of the murals, by the debt to Gauguin in one of the harvesting women and in the figure of the girl in The Chemistry. The exceptional, unforgettable picture The Sun stands by itself at the end of the room, behind and above the orchestra. Broken rays of color, like spokes from an aureole, emanate from a white, borealis disk, for which Munch’s first sketch was “a pillar of naked men climbing toward the light”—like his 1902 lithograph of a pillar of naked women bearing a coffin high over their heads. Whether, as Messer claims, The Sun is “perhaps the greatest achievement of modern mural painting,” it is the most arresting picture of the artist’s post-breakdown, rehabilitation period.

December 4. An after-concert party in the hotel. Do the stolid countenances of the guests conceal tempestuous emotions like those of the people in the sculptures in the National Gallery? The conversation, at any rate, centers on the scandal of Fru Ì?., who has deserted her husband and eloped with Ì?., the director and actor. Gossip about this liaison predicts that it will not last, other women having preceded Fru Ì?. in what is said to be Ì?.’s “pattern.” But apparently such affairs flourish in the isolation of this country, where the climate confines life to the indoors and limits the culture.

December 6. By coincidence, I am invited to the home of Ì?. and Ì?. on Holmenskollen Hill, above the ski jump and next to a lodge belonging to King Olav. (Ì?.’s aunt is His Majesty’s cook here and according to her the King is so lonely that he sometimes comes to the kitchen and dries the dishes.) After the inevitable aquavit, smoked salmon, and sweet brown cheese, I go for a walk in a Munch winterscape, wearing fur-lined stovepipe boots that might have been designed as leg-weights for Siberian convicts—though they also help to prop me up. But without ear baffles and a faceguard to deflect the sub-Arctic wind, I can remain outside for only a few minutes.

December 7. The rehearsals for our TV taping tomorrow being finished, I spend the day reading books about Munch and revisiting the gallery and museum. The most formidable obstacle in all of the publications is the radical difference between the color photographs of each picture, as well as between these and the paintings themselves. Thus the white-ish head in blue-ish space, a detail of The Scream on the cover of Reinhold Heller’s monograph,3 is reddish brown in the Messer, Selz,4 and other books, and even in the corresponding part of the picture reproduced inside the Heller; but in every case the tones are utterly different, and no photograph is true to the actual painting. Heller defends the use of black and white for another picture included in his illustrations on grounds that its colors defy the camera. But though this is undoubtedly so, his verbal descriptions of tints and shades here and elsewhere are even less helpful than distorting photographs, since colors and their relationships are an essential instrument of Munch’s composition and one on which the meaning of a painting depends.

Nevertheless, the quality of the reproductions is vastly superior to that of the texts. As might be expected of the director of the Guggenheim Museum, Messer’s choice of pictures could scarcely be bettered—except, perhaps, by having included an example from the earliest period. His technical analyses, too, are occasionally apt, as when he explains that the “airy, vibrant surface” in Self-Portrait in a Blue Suit (1909) is attained by the white spaces between the long, parallel brushstrokes. Above all, his thesis of the decline of Munch’s art after 1909 is to me the only tenable one, while the demonstration of it in this same Blue Suit is perceptive:

the reliance upon an axial order with horizontals and verticals largely supplant[s] free form, and…the use of pure colors [gives] an easily legible relationship between advancing and receding picture planes.

Few today would dispute the statement that when Munch was cured of his illness—and of his tensions, paroxysms, hallucinations—he was also cured of his genius.5

But Messer’s language is banal.6 And it is misleading. Referring to The Scream, he says that

the gloomy hues and…concentrically enlarging lines…define and ultimately embrace land, sea, and sky.

But these hues and lines are the land, sea, and sky, while the “enlarging” is ex-, not concentric. And he has a habit of introducing mysteries where none exist. Thus in Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle he sees

three, distant, almost featureless and half-averted creatures fac[ing] empty tables,

even though two of these “creatures” are unmistakably waiters in what is clearly a restaurant, while the third, seated “creature,” is almost certainly a customer.

Reinhold Heller is concerned with sources, influences, and the psychological back- and foreground. Apropos the blood-colored evening sky in The Scream, he notes that the sunset hour was thought to be the favored time for suicides until Durkheim’s study disproved the notion. Heller has evidently borrowed some of his material from Werner Timm,7 who, in turn, derived it from Rolf Stenersen.8 But while the latter two scholars merely mention the artist’s 1928 discovery of the similarity between some of his early emotional experiences and those described by Kierkegaard in The Concept of Dread, Heller explores the connection, going so far as to say that Munch

constantly stood at the edge of Kierkegaard’s precipice and felt the dizziness of that external reality he freely chose to let test its might against him….

But the idea of Munch exposing himself to the “elements” to determine how much he could endure is almost as ridiculous as the one that he could “freely choose,” especially at the time of The Scream.

Kenneth Clark also appears to have underestimated the gravity of the artist’s psychological state, writing that “Munch was a deeply neurotic man.”9 But in spite of difficulties of definition, and the lack of clear categories and boundaries, could it not be more accurate to describe his symptoms as psychotic ones, or as those of a schizophrenic of the paranoid type, characterized, according to Arieti, by “unrealistic, illogical, hallucinatory thinking, and by bizarre delusions of being persecuted.” In fact, Arieti’s example of hallucinatory symptoms in paranoids might have been suggested by The Scream: “The individual [reports] ‘voices’ that no one else seems to hear, but the ‘reality’ of which he accepts.”

Clark says, also, that

writers on Munch maintain that he was not disturbed by [his] breakdown;… I find that it affected him profoundly….

But how could it not affect him, and surely a breakdown that did not disturb would be a contradiction in terms?

If Munch were no more than “deeply neurotic,” the following statement would be perfectly acceptable:

[After Munch’s nervous collapse] he seemed afraid that the symbols which had haunted him so long were like a dangerous magic, and might again upset his mental balance: so no more devouring women….10

  1. 1

    Edvard Munch (Abrams, 1970).

  2. 2

    See Edvard Munch: The University Murals, by Johan H. Langaard and Reidar Revold (Oslo, 1960).

  3. 3

    Edvard Munch: The Scream, by Reinhold Heller, in the Art in Context series (Viking, 1973).

  4. 4

    Munch, by Jean Selz, Translated from the French by Eileen Hennessy (Crown, 1974). See also Edvard Munch (Basel, Editions Galerie Beyeler).

  5. 5

    For the contrary view, see The Oxford Companion to Art (Oxford University Press, 1970).

  6. 6

    [As a young man Munch] would pursue his off-beat ideas…. The Frieze grew out of the Norwegian’s deep commitment to significant content.” Still worse, it is quite impossible at times to understand what Messer is saying, since the referents to his pronouns and even some of the subjects of his sentences are indeterminable:

    Despite its poetic strain, Girls on the Jetty is a literal translation of a scene at Asgaardstrand. Now, some seventy years after its original conception, the visitor to this spot at Oslo Fjord will find….

    Finally, a whole manual of misusages could be compiled from the book. Messer says that, in one picture, woman

    picks the fateful apple—an act translatable to the jealous mind of the brooding foreground figure as apprehension in flagrante delicto…. [Caught in the act of apprehension?]

    And a chair in another picture is described as “a focal point for the six dramatis personae who turn to it,” though only one dramatis persona is visible.

  7. 7

    The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch, by Werner Timm, translated from the German by Ruth Michaelis-Jena and Patrick Murray (New York Graphic Society, 1969).

  8. 8

    Edvard Munch: Close-Up of a Genius (Oslo, 1969). See also, Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from the Artist’s Collection in the Munch Museum in Oslo, by Johan H. Langaard and Reidar Revold, translated from the German by Michael Bullock (McGraw-Hill, 1964). This book contains even more color photographs than Messer’s but is marred by such fatuous remarks as “[Munch’s work sprang] from his quite personal feelings for life.”

  9. 9

    Edvard Munch, catalogue of the exhibition by The Arts Council of Great Britain. Forewords by Sir Kenneth Clark and Knut Berg (London, 1974).

  10. 10

    Clark, op. cit.

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