Monday, November 14, 2005

Edvard Munch : Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux

The biography of the artist who created the most haunting icon of the twentieth century (Yale University Press).

Whenever I look at a painting, I find myself wondering if that painting holds any clues to the painter's life. In other words, are paintings largely autobiographical? Did Gustav Klimt's paintings of all those nudes reveal a sexually promiscuous life? It could well be because his biographers tell us that he had a battalion of mistresses. Does Henri Toulouse Lautrec's paintings of the Moulin Rouge and the women that danced there show us a preoccupation with the shadowy night life of Paris? It could well be since we now know that he spent all his time there. So, what would Edvard Munch's paintings, especially his portraits, tell us about himself? Sue Prideaux set out to find out and the result is a wonderful, moving biography on Norway's most-celebrated artist,titled, "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.

Sue Prideaux is a art historian who lives in London has studied the paintings and diaries of Edvard Munch(besides being a prolific painter, Munch was also a great chronicler of the daily events of his life). I can't think of a person more qualified to do this because apart from the fact that she lives and breathes art, she also is part Norwegian and speaks the language fluently and her great-uncle, Thomas Olsen, was one of Munch's most loyal patrons.

Munch's childhood was most unenviable perhaps. His mother died of the consumption when he was not quite five and his father, Christian Munch, who was deeply religious in an almost obsessive way was very strict with his sons, beating them mercilessly for even very minor infractions. He also drummed into the siblings' psyche that their dead mother watched everything that they did. "...I came frightened into this world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people,” Munch said. Munch and his sister Sophie developed a close bond but when he was 10, she too died of TB. Her death completely devastated Munch and appears to have affected him for the rest of his life. His painting, "The Sick Child" appears to be of her and he has always kept the chair in which she died. Today one can view it at the Munch museum. Illness was all around them in 19-century Norway and to make matters worse, there was mental illness in the family. Munch's maternal grandfather had spinal TB and was also insane, his other sister, Laura, was institutionalized with schizophrenia. Munch feared that he too would fall victim to a mental illness, infact that fear haunted him almost all his life. In his own words, "...Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle."

Paintings offered Munch a means of escape from his daily demons. His paintings were his babies, his allies, he couldn't bear to part with them. He was the master of self-portraiture and has done a whole collection of paintings of himself. Munch was very fond of the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and told a friend that no one in the arts had yet traveled as far as Dostoevsky "into the mystical realms of the soul." He aimed to be the first. There is a Munch painting titled, "Salome-Paraphrase, 1894-98," which explains this well. The work depicts a rather sober image of the artist's face . Above him with long flowing locks is the head of a woman. His face betrays nothing, yet the use of such so much red, which is the colour of passion, fire and aggression and the locks of hair entangling him, seem to convey his innermost longings, a peek into his sexual psyche perhaps?

The painting also reflects his complicated relationships with women. According to Sue Pridaux, Edvard Munch had an enormous number of women who were sweet on him, but decided at an early age that he would never marry. To him, women were mystifying and tempting; they lured men from the path of greatness, spoiling and corrupting them. He would allow them to get within a certain distance, but then always find an excuse to retire, lest the price of intimacy be paid at the expense of his art. But one woman, Tulla Larsen, an heiress of considerable fortune, refused to let him go always emotionally blackmailing him to return to her. The last time they met, it ended with a fateful shooting. No one knows which of them originally took hold of the gun in the struggle that ensued, or whose finger pulled the trigger, releasing the bullet that shattered the middle finger on Munch's left hand. Munch recalls the scene in his painting "Death of Marat," depicting himself as a bloodied, sacrificed Christ lying on a bed while Tulla stands nude, facing the viewer, rigid as a statue. In the case of the shot finger, Prideaux believes that Tulla Larsen pulled the trigger, but Munch later wrote an account suggesting that he did it himself - in which case it would be a self-mutilation parallel to Van Gogh's ear-amputation.

Munch continued to travel and exhibit his paintings, but he was drinking heavily and had to be admitted to a nursing home in Copenhagen after he suffered a nervous breakdown. After his mental health improved he returned home to Norway in the spring of 1909 and enjoyed a brief spurt of fame, fortune and also the companionship of some pretty young models who adored him. All that was about the change with the advent of the Nazis, however, who with their policy of Entartete Kunst (Decadent Art), held the 80 or so Munchs in German collections and ridiculed them officially in a mock exhibition and then sold on the international market, including Norway, to raise hard currency for National Socialism.

Munch died in 1944 at age 80, just before the Nazis were booted from his homeland. He bequeathed his works to Norway, an enormous gift that included 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings, 15,391 prints and 378 lithographs. Among these were the paintings in his famous "Frieze of Life."

An afterword: Before reading this book I have to confess I didn't know too much about the artist Munch except that he had painted the well known "Scream", which has become synonymous with the anxieties of modern life. "...I went along the road with two friends – the sun set. Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness…Clouds over the fjord…dripped reeking blood. My friends went on, but I just stood trembling with an open wound in my breast…I heard an extraordinary scream pass through nature..." This is how Edvard Munch’s visionary experience came to him before he painted this iconic work of art. This book by Sue Perdeaux has now put aface and a story to this painting and for that I am grateful.