"Life shakes the hand of death at the moment of conception."
Edvard Munch is a Norwegian Symbolist/Expressionism painter, acclaimed to be the greatest artist of Norway and a father of Expressionism. The purpose of Expressionism and Symbolism is to show emotions that the artist feels in hopes that the viewer will be stirred and feel them as well. The artist is not concerned with reality as it appears but with its inner nature and with the emotions aroused by the subject. To achieve these ends, the subject is frequently exaggerated, distorted, or otherwise altered in order to stress the emotional experience in its most intense and concentrated form.
- The Sick Child (1886)
- Death in the Sickroom (1895)
- The Scream (1893)
- The Voice (1895)
- The Vampire (1894)
- Madonna (1895)
- Anxiety (1894)
- Puberty (1895)
- Red and White (1894)
- Young Girl on the Shore (1896)
- The Dance of Life (1900)
- The Kiss (1897)
- Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle (1906)
- Nude by the Wicker Chair (1929)
- Starry Night (1893)
- Self Portrait, Between Clock and Bed (1942)
The Sick Child (1886)
In this painting, Edvard Munch shows, as the center of attention, a stricken young girl, propped on a thick white pillow, covered with a heavy blanket, at the end of her short life. A grieving companion sits next to her, her head so deeply bowed that we can only see the top of her head, not her features. The companion is so overcome with grief that she can neither hold her head up, nor look at the dying girl. Only the young girl's haunting profile is visible, as she looks steadily toward a dark ominous drape, perhaps representing the unknown or the mystery of death. Her reddish hair appears thin, damp, and uncombed against the pillow.
The two figures make contact by holding hands for comfort. The artist omits the details of fingers, and just indicates a simple connected shape for both hands. Striving for only simplified and essential forms, Munch enhanced each surface by impassioned brushstrokes, nuanced colors, and thick layers of impasto paint.
Done early in his career (Munch was only twenty-two), this is one of six paintings by Munch on the theme of the sick child; he also examined the same theme in lithograph, drypoint, and etching over the years. Munch continually returned to the subject of his sister Sophie's death.
Death in the Sickroom (1895)
Death in the Sickroom goes back to the memory of the death of Munch's beloved sister, Sophie. Otherwise the models are depicted at the ages they were when the motif was painted, not their ages when the event took place. Here Munch may have wished to express a dimension of contemporaneousness - demonstrating that the family would always be affected by Sophie's death.
Munch has many works dealing with the illness (tuberculosis) and death of his dear sister, Sophie. In this painting she is seated in the wicker chair with her back to us. The aura of sanctity is in no way diminished by the medicine bottles, bedpan and paraphernalia of the sickroom. The bed is empty and in the background. The artist directs our focus not to the dying person but to the inner thoughts and grief of the family members, the soon-to-be survivors.
Munch was fourteen when his sister died. Members of the family (who can be identified in so many of his pictures, e.g. "Death Agony," "The Dead Child") are painted not at the ages they were when the event happened, but closer to the ages they were when Munch painted the picture. Munch would not dispute that illness and death laid the foundation for his art. He himself said, "In the same chair as I painted the sick one I and all my dear ones from my mother on have been sitting winter after winter longing for the sun - until death took them away - I and all my dear ones from my father on have paced up and down the floor in anxiety."
Often referred to as the Sigmund Freud of painting, Munch's own psychologic pain is manifested pictorially if not transformed into creative form. The many studies and versions of this painting attest to the importance in his adult years of the memory of his sister's dying, and to the healing power of art in coming to terms with one's personal loss and grief.
The positioning of the relatives captures the paradoxical nature of grief: aloneness and existential isolation even in the midst of a group. Yet, discussing this scene with patients as if it were in a hospital, today, some would point out the simple details of caring (even to the pillow and religious art of choice), the communion without words, the dignity, privacy, and respect - which stand in contrast to some current practices.
The Scream (1893)
The Scream has come more and more to be accepted as Edvard Munch's most significant motif - the very symbol of modern man, for whom God is dead and for whom materialism provides no solace. Munch wrote several versions of a prose-lyrical associated with the motif, one of which reads: 'I was walking along a path with two friends - the sun was setting - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.'
The Voice (1895)
There are two painted versions of The Voice, one in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the other in the Munch Museum. The first version was exhibited in Berlin in 1893 as the first picture in a series jointly entitled Study for a Series: Love. These love motifs were the first works in what would later be known as The Frieze of Life.
The Vampire (1894)
The motif is simple and concentrated in expression. A woman with long red hair bends over a man, Medusa-like she lets her red hair bind him to her. The pair cast a single shadow, which groups them in a classic pyramid composition. Love and Pain, which was the first title of the motif, indicates an ambition to express complex feelings in painting.
The aura-like lines around the model in this main motif from The Frieze of Life which ripple in a soft and suggestive rhythm, the half-closed and deep-set eyes allow us to sense the ecstasy of conception, the pinnacle of love but also an underlying pain. The red colour of the halo has the associations with both love and blood.
Alluring and inviting, disturbing and threatening, Munch's Madonna is above all mysterious. This erotic nude appears to float in a dreamlike space, with swirling strokes of deep black almost enveloping her. An odd-looking, small fetuslike figure or just-born infant hovers at the lower left with crossed skeletal arms and huge frightened eyes. Little about the Madonna seems to conform to her holy title, save for a narrow dark gold band atop her head. This haunting apparition reflects Munch's alliance with Symbolist artists and writers.
Woman, in varying roles from mother-protector to sexual partner to devouring vampire and harbinger of death, serves as the chief protagonist in a series of paintings and corresponding prints about love, anxiety, and death that Munch grouped together under enigmatic headings. Madonna was first executed as a black-and-white lithograph in 1895. During the next seven years, Munch hand-colored several impressions. Finally, the image was revised in 1902, using additional lithographic stones for color and a woodblock for the textured blue sky.
The background landscape, inside Kristiania Fjord, is the same that we find in The Scream. The pale, ghostly faces come toward us like a procession of ghosts, in a line which could almost be seen as a funeral cortege.
Seated centrally on bed and canvas, legs tightly pressed together, hands clasped between them, covering herself, a naked, adolescent girl stares directly at the viewer. Her expression is serious, tense, anxious. Shy and defenseless, her thin lovely, virginal body contrasts with its dark amorphous shadow cast on the wall behind her.
The shadow did not appear in Munch's earlier versions of this work nor in the later (1903) etching. Critics hypothesize it is meant to accentuate the trepidation relating to her awakening sexuality, or a menacing sign of death. The shadow's form is rather like a woman's head of long hair which is a motif in many of his works.
Whether a body (e.g., "Vampire'") or decapitated head drained of life-blood, entangled in his mistress's hair (e.g., "Salome"), or a mourning figure more loosely (but still literally) connected to his withdrawing lover by the long strands of her hair (e.g., "Separation" series), the symbol depicts the erotic, destructive power of sexual union with woman.
Red and White (1894)
In terms of motif, Red and White is related to The Woman/Sphinx, but instead of the naked and challenging female of that picture, in Red and White the central woman is dressed in strong red - the colour of love. The work was also painted over at a later date. To the right between the trees a dark figure can still be distinguished.
Young Girl on the Shore (1896)
The motif is burnished and scraped out with a burnisher, and the plate is then inked with the finest nuances in blue, yellow and red using dollies. A total of 11 colour prints of this aquatint are known, and all differ in some respect. The female figure in white appears in several of Munch's works, and represents innocence, purity and beauty.
The Dance of Life (1900)
The Dance of Life, which Munch pained in 1900, takes place on a bright summer night along the shore of Aasgaardstrand in Oslo Fjord. Lit by a full moon, couples engage in an energetic dance. The phallic reflection of the moonlight in the water gives the scene a mood of sexuality. In the center of the painting, a man in a dark suit and a woman in a red dress are sunk within each other. Both of them are in the prime of their lives. The woman's dress wraps around his legs, a couple of strains of her hair reach out towards him. His eyes are closed; the two seem totally self-absorbed and oblivious of others. On the left side a young girl in a white dress and a smile on her face enters the scene. Her hand reaches out towards a flower in front of her. On the opposite side, an old woman stands in a black dress. She watches the dance of the center couple with a bitter facial expression, her hands folded in withdrawn.
Besides the use of color, Munch deepens the differences of the three females by the different use of lines that outline the figures. The adolescent girl on the left is enclosed with sensitive, vibrant strokes. A "swathing, ingestive" line coils around the center female "with her evident appetite for life". In contras, the dark woman on the right, who appears to have withdrawn from the dance of life, is outlined by angular and rigid lines.
The Dance of Life belongs to a series called the Frieze of Life. This frieze was intended as a series of freely adjoining pictures, which would give a clear view of life and the situation of modern man. Munch wrote: "Through them all there winds the curving shore line, and beyond it the sea, while under the trees, life, with all its complexities of grief and joy, carries on". The three major themes of the Frieze of Life, love, anxiety and death are clearly expressed in The Dance of Life. Thus, this painting can be seen as one of the centerpieces in the series.
I am dancing with my true love - a memory of her. A smiling, blond-haired woman enters who wishes to take the flower of love - but it won't allow itself to be taken. And on the other side one can see her dressed in black troubled by the couple dancing - rejected - as I was rejected from her dance.
The possibility of various different interpretations of Munch's painting The Dance of Life is clearly fascinating. Through his revelation of his most personal experiences, Munch strives to create universal symbols and values. Thus, this painting becomes a "parable of human existence and of destiny that dominates our adventure on earth".
The Kiss (1897)
Munch painted a number of variations of the motif Kiss, placing the couple in various positions but always expressing the tension between life rushing past outside and the timeless, frozen moment inside. In this version Munch explores the effect of back lighting, which contributes to the abstract, surface-like nature of the couple whose bodies glide across each other into a single shape.
Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle (1906)
In Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine Munch is equally melancholic and passive, as he appears self-confident in Self-Portrait with Brushes. The entire position, the relaxed hands and the resigned expression, indicate that all power has deserted him. The atmosphere presses down on the artist, conveying an oppressive feeling of melancholy and loneliness.
The "Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle" is not a representation of the physical appearance of the painter, Edvard Munch, but rather it is a psychological expression of his inner dilemmas. As such we can call this a portrayal of the painter's troubled psyche.
Therefore, this picture cannot be explained like a photograph, by the images it conveys. It can only be understood by the clear definition of what it represents. The feelings such as fear, loneliness, hopelessness, uncertainty, and concepts such as phobia, isolation and death are symbolized by the unique technique of the artist and the symbolic values of the few discernable objects in the painting.
The use of colors itself, in the first place, gives the painting a grim tone. Most hues are dull and cold and warm hues have darkness and contrasts in themselves. For example, as stated in the oppressing dark red background puts the man in a state of tortured existence. A striking exception in the usage of colors is the brightly colored necktie, which is a focus of attention in the painting and is a vivid blood red. This may well be a metaphor and the tie most probably represents his jugular. I assume that this is one of the symbols representing death. Another is the tables, which make one think of "white clad coffins".
The artist has an expression of nearly catatonic lament; and lines of pain and anguish is visible in his features, as well as represented by his distorted form. The people in the background seem distant and cold, giving a sense of alienation and helplessness. As such, the only friendly figure in the painting seems to be the wine bottle, which stands out in the picture and is seemingly has more "substance" than anything else, except the painter, in the picture. This can be explained by Munch's increasing subsistance on tobacco and alcohol.
This most certainly defines the psychological state of Munch in 1906, lonely and in anguish. His life has always been an oppressing and painful one, yet his neurosis reached its zenith in those years and after a neural breakdown in 1908-09, he was voluntarily confined in Dr. Jacobson's clinic.
Nude by the Wicker Chair (1929)
Here the female model poses naked in front of the wicker chair with her head bent and arms dangling. The vigorous colouring makes the picture a rare gem from this period. The room, which opens into new rooms in the background is a new feature in Munch's composition, which stands in strong contrast to his many previous closed, bare rooms.
Starry Night (1893)
In the group of starry night motifs seen from Munch's veranda at Ekely, where the blue winter night conveys a fateful sense of melancholy, we see how Munch makes use of rounded shapes in constructing the painting. The shadow in the foreground - in all likelihood Munch's own shadow - expresses loneliness in the face of death.
Self Portrait, Between Clock and Bed (1942)
With the stance of an old man, Munch places himself between two symbols of death, the clock and the bed. He stands there alone on the treshold between the sun-filled room behind him overflowing with works of art - what has been his life - and the bedroom where the shadow on the floor in front of him forms the shape of a cross.
A figure stands left of center, erect and facing forward in a room. He is, as described by the painting's title, standing between the tall grandfather clock and the bed. Vibrantly colored and painted with a tumultuous energy, this image does not immediately connote Munch's typical themes of death and sickness. Yet his hands hang limply by his side, and the clock (sans hands or numerals) and bed can be understood symbolically, not only as a statement of the relationship between time and sleep, but also as to where Munch sees himself in his artistic career. (He appears to be stepping forward into the room, no longer concerned with time, "impassively awaiting death".
This late self-portrait places Munch in his own colorful world, his pictures and artifacts surrounding him. Other self-portraits painted during this last decade of his life depict the figure even more mannequin, skeletal-like, and obviously aged.
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