Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch; drawing by David Levine

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

But if, on the other hand, he were schizophrenic, the capacity for deliberate choice implied here is not plausible. And are not these symbols manifestly the symptom, not the cause, of the illness? Clark here appears to grant to Munch powers of direction over his mind and of distinguishing between subjective and objective that this sadly disoriented brain did not have. Furthermore, the women did return, for example in the hair-fetishist Weeping Maiden and Womanly Act, both of 1920.

While Clark at least always views Munch as an artist, Heller asserts that the “paintings were created…to act as non-verbal symbols….” But were the paintings not created as paintings, as compositions of forms, colors, lines, textures? And how can Heller even have glanced at Anxiety and still say that

the eyes which stare at [the viewer are] the eyes of modern city-dwellers alienated from the majesty of nature and accustomed to being constantly confronted by ugliness. [?]

Surely the subject of Anxiety is loneliness, the isolation of people from each other, rather than the preoccupation of Oslo’s residents with the city’s aesthetic shortcomings.

Messer and Heller disagree in their interpretations of The Scream (1893). “Nothing external gives a clue to the horror that impels the outcry,” Messer writes, although the sky is both external and bloody, which might be thought sufficient provocation to cry out. He also says that. “The subject [is] apparently a woman,” despite the bald head, so different from the abundant tresses that typify Munch’s females. Heller, on the other hand, refers to

the sexless, emasculated figure [which]…takes on the art nouveau curvature of the landscape rather than retaining human form.

An emasculated figure is still male in appearance, however, and the form of this one, while skeletal, is still human—and not, say, werewolf. Finally, Munch’s confession that the experience had been his own suggests that the “subject” was a representation of himself. The sunken cheeks are strikingly similar to those in his self-portrait as John the Baptist.

William S. Lieberman, for whom The Scream is Munch’s “most vivid image,”11 argues that through translation to a graphic medium, the picture

gains effectively in expressiveness. The colors are reduced to black and white. The sinuous curves contrast with the diagonals of the bridge over the railing…. A couple continues to promenade….

In fact the lithograph is superior to the painting in two ways, the higher intensity of focus on the screamer, achieved by eliminating (not “reducing”) color, and the greater distinctness of the promenaders, which supports the theory that the cry, if not merely imagined, is unheard. But the contrasts, not only between “sinuous curves” and diagonals, but also between them and the newly introduced verticals, are almost academic, or at any rate too obvious, compared to the vertiginous—swirling and enveloping—“Nature,” which is one of the marvels of the painting.

Surprisingly, no investigation of Munch’s abnormal personality and ultimate breakdown has yet appeared, and the commentaries purporting to examine his mental state attempt to relate his numerous aberrations to his work but not to each other or to physical causes. Thus Messer discusses the evidence for agoraphobia in Munch’s treatment of space and in the way in which his crowds huddle together. But one might add that their closeness to buildings and the extreme foreground position of individual figures are additional signs of this phobia; Rycroft believes such a condition to be due to excessive fears of reality, of death, and of leaving the mother, and Munch was undeniably subject to all of these. His mother died when he was five, an event that he seems to have portrayed in the horrifying etching The Dead Mother (1901), in which the child, though dressed as a girl, could be Munch; her clenched hands at the sides of her face, moreover, are reminiscent of the subject in The Scream.

The question of Munch’s relationships with women is usually approached as if it were a separate matter. Messer, for instance, echoes the remark, repeated in every study of the artist, that

with women [Munch] was influenced by ideas derived from the popularization of Schopenhauer

—as if the mere reading of a misogynist could have inspired the artist’s very real terror of women, or have filled him with guilt about his sexual behavior, or have helped to drive him to what would seem to be at least latent necrophilia (The Madonna being conceivable as an expression of this brand of desire12 ), all of which constitute some of his feelings about women in his sexually obsessed art. As for the lithograph of The Madonna, in which the woman is even more cadaverous than in the painting—or more adept at playing dead—it is difficult to agree with William Lieberman that

The figure appears as eternal womanhood…. The woman, albeit haloed, is not an object of devotion. The embryo and the fluid border suggest the equivocal irony born of a scientific age….

The woman is indeed not an object of devotion but of sex, while the embryo is a fetus, the “fluid border” a stream of spermatozoa.

“Munch was exceptionally handsome and never married,” Clark writes, but if an allusion to homosexuality were intended, the word would have to be understood in the sense of the artist’s flight from women, rather than of his attraction to men. True, his bisexuality is implied in the self-portrait as a sphinx with female breasts and in his inscription on a drawing, done under psychiatric supervision, of an electric device

inducing positive male power and negative female power in the painter’s weakened brain.

But in Munch’s depiction of the relation between the sexes, woman is generally man’s destroyer, and she is nearly always so in his self-portraits, such as Under the Mask of a Woman, which seems to say that he is in hell as her victim and through no fault of his own.

Munch’s frequent rear-view presentation of women may be part of his obsession with long hair (Young Girl on the Shore, 1896; Summer Night, 1907), and with the threat of being drowned in its coils, as in the waves of the sea. But much more remains to be explored on the subject, from Munch’s fantasies of masochistic abasement and his use of the symbols of Salomé and Charlotte Corday to his fear of losing his identity in women—made explicit when the lips of his kissing couple form a single ugly snout.

What Kenneth Clark may have meant, and what is incontestable from Munch’s work—still the primary source of knowledge about the artist—is that the painter was deeply “narcissistic.” This could have originated in ego bruises dating from infancy or from his mother’s death and developing rapidly when he began to exhibit his pictures, the “narcissism” being a protective response to the feeling that his art was under attack. He tells of entering an Oslo gallery in which people were laughing at one of his pictures, and, in the street afterward, of hearing himself called “fake painter” by the most esteemed artist of the day. “I was subject to unusual persecution,” he writes, and obviously he thought of the critics as being in league against him. In one pathetic diary entry he expressed the hope that a particular enemy “doesn’t imagine that I take any notice of him.”

Munch’s persecution feelings led to violent episodes. A woman with whom he lived attempted to shoot herself after his refusal to marry her, and, intervening, he accidentally mutilated one of his fingers. Even in his seventy-first year he was involved in a drunken street fight with a younger colleague.

But the persecution was balanced by the fascination with the face in the mirror. It is difficult to estimate the number of his self-portraits—overt, hidden, incipient, transferred—but the proportion must be among the highest in the catalogue raisonné of any artist. While still young, Munch pictured himself with a skeleton arm—in a lithograph that might have appealed to John Donne. And even as an old man, Munch was still painting his portrait in the nude. His self-absorption may be the most important fact about him, his breakdown being the consequence—apart from all of the other physical and parataxic causes—of his inability to see the world except as it pertained to himself.

* * *

The film Edvard Munch13 shows an understanding of the painter’s personality, in his apparent diffidence, impassivity, and failure to respond appropriately, for he remains a silent observer in scenes of discussions where others react with animation and spontaneity; but then, volcanoes smoldering beneath immobile exteriors are not cinematic. In sum, no protagonist in a three-hour film can have had fewer lines to learn or less histrionic range to display than the actor who plays Edvard Munch.

More than a third of Edvard Munch is devoted to the artist’s childhood and youth, thereby enabling the director to dwell on the Norwegian social background; on Munch’s guru, the anarchist Hans Jaeger; and on the harsh pieties and gruesome maladies of the Munch family. But the scenes of the artist’s consumptive sister frothing blood at the mouth, and of his own pulmonary hemorrhage at age fifteen, must convince the viewer that the blood-smeared skies in The Scream and in Anxiety are related to these traumatic experiences.

The film’s researchers claim to have uncovered new facts, the most crucial being that the painter’s grandfather had syphilis. This could account for the insanity (paresis?) of another of Munch’s sisters, as well as raise a question about the likelihood of the same disease in the artist himself—though if he did not have it congenitally, he might well have contracted it during his early “free love Bohemian” years in Oslo, or, later, during a debauch in Berlin; no one seems to have considered that a possible reason for Munch’s early resolution never to marry could have been the fear of transmitting venereal disease. The film identifies Dagny Juell as the model for The Madonna (erroneously believed to have been the violinist Eva Mudocci), attributes an influence on Munch’s color symbolism to the phrase from the Iliad, “Blue death closes the eyes,” and reveals that he was given naphtha injections, presumably to relieve his coughing spells and stridulous breathing.

Apart from these and other matters of fact, the narration contains questionable judgments (The Sick Child is “the first great Expressionist picture in modern art”); debatable interpretations (Munch’s early withdrawal into himself is “signified by the veiled eyes in a Self-Portrait“); and misstatements (“Perspective vanishes from Munch’s pictures,” the commentary says, though it has not done so in those shown for illustration). At one point the audience is told that Munch is in Paris but he is not shown there, nor are such of his Parisian pictures as the Rue Lafayette, whose elongated balcony with the figure leaning over it is an important motif, repeated later with railings of bridges. In films it is not unexpected that the creation of works of art is secondary to stories of love affairs, though here this emphasis gives the impression that to escape from them was Munch’s primary artistic motivation. As for the act of painting, this is limited to some glimpses of the artist setting up his easel, posing a sitter, and briefly applying pencil and brush—which, however, make chipping and scratching sounds like those of scaupers or incising tools. Toward the close of the three hours the camera begins to stray to the lakes and forests of Norway, thereby betraying Munch’s creed that Nature and Art are enemies.

The movie ends as Munch is about to enter a psychiatric clinic. No doubt the reason for this conclusion is to exploit the irony of the artist finally receiving his country’s recognition (a knighthood in the Royal Order of St. Olav) at the very moment of his mental breakdown. Shortly before this he enumerated the priorities in the creative process, and the truth of this order is unchallengeable, at least for Edvard Munch:

Art is the form of the picture that has come into being through the nerves, heart, brain and eye of man.

This Issue

January 20, 1977