Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Sickness Unto Death

No other artist ever painted sickness and death quite like Edvard Munch, born on this date in 1863. Munch, most famous for his iconic (and frequently stolen) 1893 painting The Scream, knew death intimately from a young age, watching siblings, family members, and friends all suffer through long illnesses against the backdrop of the cold, bleak winters of his native Norway. The Sick Child (above, 1885-1886) represents just one of his many depictions of illness. In The Sick Child, the dying figure seems to be comforting her nurse. Munch obsessively depicted this scene, redoing it as a lithograph, a frequent technique he employed to pursue a theme or an image even further. All of Munch’s painting can be seen as a scream for help, a release of frustration and emotions bottled up inside.

Women supplied another endless source of frustration and obsession for Munch. The 1973 biographical film of Munch’s life delves excruciatingly in great detail into many of his failed romances. (I don’t recommend watching the film, unless you have greater patience than I do.) Munch studied women from all angles and ages. His Puberty shows a young woman at her most vulnerable. Munch’s Madonna (above, from 1894-1895) presents his ideal woman, yet echoes his depiction of the female Vampire so closely that the two can’t be easily separated. In subtitling his 1894 painting The Three Stages of Woman “Sphinx,” Munch revealed just how great a riddle he found women to be.

After 1893, Munch began to collect his works under the title The Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love, and Death. Over the years he added to the works in the sequence, piecing together the themes of his art to be read as one continuous work. Munch even painted newer versions of works he had sold just to include them in the frieze. Munch’s final obsession, however, was himself. In his Self-Portrait With Burning Cigarette (above, from 1895), Munch almost assumes the non-solidity of the smoky cloud that envelops him. Munch painted this work shortly after he was shot in the left hand in a lover’s quarrel. That left hand dissolves completely into the smoke. In 1903, Munch depicted himself nude, tormented for eternity in Self-Portrait in Hell. Munch’s anxiety drove him to seek professional help in the form of electric shock therapy in 1908, which changed him in many ways, taking the expressionist edge off of his later works. Illness marks many of the later self-portraits, including 1919’s Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza, 1919’s Self-Portrait in Distress, and 1930’s Self-Portrait During the Eye Disease. In his 1923-1924 Self-Portrait, also known as The Night Wanderer, Munch seems almost spectral, a mere ghost of his former self. Sadly, Munch lived until 1944, seeing his works condemned as “Degenerate Art” by the Nazis in Germany, the country that first embraced his art thanks to the German Expressionists. When the Nazis invaded Munch’s native Norway, they pressured him for an endorsement, hoping it would win over the minds of his countrymen. Munch refused to the end, never giving in to a horror even greater than that he imagined in The Scream.

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