Edvard Munch is an artist that needs no introduction in the world of Art. The Norwegian painter has been able to bring psychological and emotional depth into his works that have distinctly shaped how Art is understood in not so orthodox terms and conditions. To better understand the contributions towards the field of art, and moreover towards the style of Symbolism and Expressionism during the 1890’s, one must understand the deep history that is attached with the life of an Artist: Edvard Munch.
Munch came from a very humble background where he grew up in an extremely orthodox Catholic environment under the banner of his Christian fundamentalist father. Besides this element, the fact that he was raised in a household beset with periodic mental illnesses, propelled his way through for being an Avant Garde artist. For Munch, the themes of death, insanity and illness were dominant themes that could be observed in his work. As we progress further into examining his artworks and the contributive factors behind them, Munch’s turbulent childhood is seen as a reflection in them along with his exposure to Bohemian circles. It was as though the angels of anxiety and death were instructing him to produce all his artwork.
Being a painter and printmaker by profession, one observes that Munch partakes in the extreme haunting treatment of psychological themes in his artwork. Rising to fame after producing the renowned painting titled ‘The Scream’, it is no surprise that the painting that bought Munch his fame is a symbol of the modern man’s pain and anguish. According to Edvard Munch himself: ‘For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness, I should have been like a ship without a rudder.’
An extremely prolific yet troubled artist who was seemingly preoccupied with his traumatic upbringing, Munch’s artistic response was deeply heartfelt and personal. Influenced greatly by French Impressionism, the artist expressed his deep-rooted emotions of grief and anxiety through using intense colors, semi-abstraction, and strange subject matters. Munch was also influenced by artists such as Manet and Van Gogh, which can be seen with the usage of bold strokes, linework and use of colors. For Munch, the use of this artistic style helped him to highlight the otherwise tabooed concepts of mental health issues along with the controversial themes of sexuality and individualism. As a precursor of the movement of Expressionism, for us to decipher the life of an artist: Edvard Munch strove to develop a marriage between the subject in the world around him and his interpersonal experiences and psychological perceptions.
The frequent preoccupation in Munch’s work with the themes of grief and anxiety are an ode to his tempestuous past- a topic that perhaps he felt needed to be highlighted as a part of his legacy. Assessing the artist’s important contributions, one must investigate them in chronological order.
The Sick Child (1885-1886)
This painting is considered as one of his earliest works and perhaps the most obvious connection to his turbulent childhood and evident use of the theme of illness. An oil painting that is now found at the Tate Gallery in London, the painting sets the tone for his future works that would eventually deal with concepts regarding death and madness. The painting depicts his ailing sister and what is thought to be his dead mother- both of which he saw die due to tuberculosis. The use of rough brushstrokes, melancholic color palette and what seems to be an unfinished overall look of the painting, Edvard Munch received much criticism for his work. Regardless, this was a breakthrough in his career when it came towards creating paintings that did not follow suit with the canonized ideology of academic painting that dealt with themes that did not depict sorrow.
The Scream (1893)
Even though Munch was able to create this masterpiece centuries ago, it still plays a pivotal part in shaping the structure and theology behind modern art today. The iconic ‘Scream’ is a symbol for modern malaise nuanced with aesthetic elements of Fauvism, Expressionism, and perhaps even Surrealism. The artist was inspired to paint the inner agony that he felt in the form of a central figure in the painting with a ghostly expression on its face. This inner agony was described by the artist himself as the scream of nature that he heard whilst taking a leisurely walk and thus translated into the form of a groundbreaking painting. The oil and tempera painting with pastel on cardboard, now preserved in Oslo, has been made using fluid strokes that not only symbolize the fluidity the artist felt in nature, but is also an ode to Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night. The crimson sky depicts the somberness of the environment and the mental agony in which Edvard Munch found himself stuck in. In contrast to this, the black and blue tones used to depict the water in the background set against the boardwalk also symbolizes grief that flows through his being persistently like water waves and ripples.
Along with the controversial themes of grief and ailment, Munch was able to spark up much criticism when he put forth his works that revolved around themes of untamed sexuality and hedonism. His oil on canvas, The Madonna, depicts the chaste symbol of the mother of Christ, however in a nude. The body language of the subject depicts the act of lovemaking without any hint of religious discretion. Although this painting is not as Avant Garde in its aesthetic as perhaps the others, it may very well be classified as a Modernist one.
Recognition After Death
It is interesting to note that painters from the past often found their well-deserved recognition after their death. The life of an artist: Edvard Munch albeit full of controversy and limited fame, paved way for future artists to follow his revolt against the naturalist decrees of the 19th century academic painting and follow a more spirited form of expression that relied heavily on emotion by using bold colors, abrupt brush strokes and even an overall unfinished aesthetic. Munch was able to influence future artists such as Kandinsky and Matisse and several more to follow. His most profound legacy can perhaps be described as his contribution towards acknowledging and portraying the human spectrum of universal emotions that was tabooed at the time of his existence and giving it a physically unapologetic form. His work persists to mold the Artscape of the postmodern era, giving future and current artists the liberty to explore daunting and dark facets of human emotion.