Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream – Extract

One of the first things Munch did when he arrived in Berlin was to paint a portrait of Strindberg.

Strindberg was a refugee from Sweden where he had left behind huge debts, a scandalous marriage, a divorce and a trial for blasphemy. When he got off the train in Berlin in October 1892, he was in the same position as Munch: taking flight from an ungrateful homeland though his luggage was rather different. He alighted onto the platform with ‘one green and white striped footbath which accompanied him like cleanliness itself from one hotel to another, a small case of clothes and a green flannel sack about one yard in length, with gentle billowing valleys and summits and fastened by a cord. It contained all his manuscripts. It contained his theory that plants have nerves. It contained the theory that elements can be split. It contained theories that refute Newton and God himself.

‘There was a certain dignity and grandeur to his demeanor quite different to Munch’s Norwegian straightforwardness but the two of them hit it off straight away. There was some sort of bond between them.’They were both extremely fond of good clothes when they could afford them, and they were seen about at all the galleries and theatres in matching navy overcoats of the latest cut.

Strindberg was exploring the philosophical Monism of Ernst Haeckl, a professor of zoology at Jena engaged in the search for a ‘scientifically sound’ alternative to traditional religion. From pre-atomic physics Haeckl had taken the primary law that nothing in nature is destroyed, that matter changes only in form. All is life, and all life is a process of metamorphosis. This struck an immediate cord with Munch, who saw Haeckl’s theory as a validation of his own St Cloud vision.  The next five months spent with Strindberg were to be enormously influential on the development of Munch’s ideas and his creativity.

Strindberg was pursuing his painting very seriously; he admired Munch’s paintings and they worked together in the closest situation Munch ever got to collaboration. It was an intellectual rather than physical collaboration. They discussed theory and proposed subject matter but each was far too jealous to pick up a brush and apply it to the other’s canvas. Strindberg piloted the role of chance in creation as the new direction in art. It was part of a theory of the accidental, or theory of chance in the universe which was one of Nietzsche and Strindberg’s reactions to ‘the old positivism that had assured us that the universe held no secrets, that we had solved every riddle’. The irrational and the uncontrolled were the gate to the occult and the subconscious with all its strata and labyrinths; this was where the ultimate truth, the ‘psychology of the naked soul’could be found.

However, random creation was of no more appeal to Munch than accessing creativity in some chance way through the occult. Munch would go through meticulous preparation before producing one of his supposedly dashed-off pieces. The theory of divine connection existing on the cusp of consciousness interested him, however, and he was prepared to experiment with it in certain fields of pre-creation: the extent to which he would drink or starve himself to raise his consciousness into a hyper-sensitive state before addressing the canvas. But, unlike Strindberg, he would never be interested table-turning, alchemy or automatic writing as a means to unlock secret doors; Munch would never believe that he could go outside himself to conjure up the world of spirits to help in the creative process, as Strindberg would.

It is interesting how different their paintings were when the two of them agreed to embark on the same theme simultaneously. Jealousy is a case in point. Strindberg’s Night of Jealousy is an abstract of dark-and-white impasto,  so impenetrable he had to explain it in words on the back of the canvas where he wrote to his fiancée; ‘To Miss Frida Uhl from the artist (the Symbolist August Strindberg). The painting depicts the sea (bottom right), Clouds, (top), a Cliff (on the left), a Juniper bush (top left) and symbolizes: a Night of Jealousy.’

Munch’s Jealousy, however, is narrative-based. It tells the three-cornered story of himself and Dagny, one of the women that he and Strindberg were rivals for, beneath an Edenic apple tree. She reaches up for an apple; her red (sin) robe falls open to reveal her nakedness. The foreground contains the contorted face of Staczu Prybyszewski, her other lover. There is no need for a written explanation on the reverse.

The two paintings highlight the difference between the two of them in their attitude to symbols and Symbolism. The weakness of Strindberg’s paintings lay in the Symbolist trap of exclusivity. Symbolism was founded on the idea of the initiate. As Strindberg wrote; ‘Every picture is double-bottomed as it were. Each one has an exoteric aspect that everybody can make out, albeit with a little effort, and an esoteric one for the painter and the chosen few.’ This was the reason he signed himself ‘the Symbolist artist Strindberg’ and it was the reason Munch never was a Symbolist in the pure sense. The Symbolist doctrine laid down that art should only be accessible to the few, that it should be composed in a closed (hermetic) language, revealed only to the initiates who possessed the key to the code. Munch’s attitude was diametrically opposed. His quest was to touch the universal nerve in art; the perception common to all. If Munch used symbols (in the way of emotional manipulation of colour or shape, for instance), then they must communicate to some universal instinct, speaking directly, not through some memorised code. A symbol must be an expression with manifold meanings, a resonance in the universal echo chamber of the mind.

Munch did not endear himself to the touchy Swede by telling him he doubted he would be able to earn a living from his pictures, but it did not provoke one of Strindberg’s fantastic hatreds. In fact, for the next few months the two of them remained inseparable.  Their favourite meeting place  was  a Weinstube on the corner of  Neue Wilhelmstrasse and Unter den Linden whose official name was Turkes Weinhandlung und  Probierstube but which soon became known as  Zum Schwartzen Ferkel  (The Black Piglet) after   Strindberg, whose grasp on reality was not great at this time, one evening  mistook its swinging pub sign  for a suspended piglet. Two small rooms were separated by a narrow serving counter overflowing with bottles containing over nine hundred brands of alcohol. The Schwarzen Ferkel was so limited it could barely accommodate twenty persons and by six o’clock in the evening, once Strindberg, Munch and Stanislaw Prybyszewski, known as Staczu, had begun frequenting the place, it was impossible to find a vacant inch.

‘Talk the whole evening – dazzled us with astounding paradoxes, impressed us with scientific theories, turned hitherto accepted scientific dogmas inside out.’There are many chroniclers of the Ferkel circle. It was one of those moments in cultural history when the humblest washer-up realises that in merely being there he is brushing the coat tails of history. It was a polyglot circle at whose centre was the twenty-four year old Pole, Staczu Prybyszewski. He looked like a Slav Christ with a cigarette fastened permanently to his lower lip. He had a soft, mesmerising voice and a gift for provoking argument in which he displayed masterly sarcasm and scorn. He had come to Berlin to study neurology, mysticism and Satanism. He was a keen reader of Baudelaire, Huysmans and Malarkey and an ardent admirer of Nietzsche. He would publish the first book on Munch’s work the following year and he would write a novel called Overboard in which the painter Mikita is Munch.   He was a notorious liar and alcoholic, suffered from hallucinations and was a brilliant pianist.

‘Staczu played Chopin, the great pieces, by heart like a gypsy. No beat, no tempo, and when he was drunk he would insert an explanatory passage here or there. He had arms like a gorilla and hands two feet long. In the end we discovered he had just cobbled bits of Chopin together, but how!’

Evening flowed into evening in a stream of consciousness, spawning the next dream, the next inspiration for the next poem, book, play or canvas, the next alchemical probe or scientific breakthrough. The interests that were covered included: dreams, hypnotism and suggestion; colour photography; ‘air electricity as motor power’; sortileges (the power of bewitchment); envoûtement, the means of killing your enemy by remote control; conjuring the devil; the manufacture of iodine from coal; the alchemical manufacture of gold and silver from base metals; whether plants had nervous systems (to determine which, Strindberg was alarming the owners of local fruit trees by injecting their fruit with morphine); spectral analysis; physics; the production of liquid silk without silkworms; the mechanics of symbols, the effect of spells and drugs on the brain and the dynamics of sex.  Their experiments were foolhardily brave and, in their way, self-sacrificing. Any excess was seen as energising, whatever the physical, mental or spiritual cost.

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