Frances Spalding, The Sunday Times – Edvard Munch review

In old age, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) had such a dread of silence that the radios in his house were never switched off. Often two played in one room, tuned to different stations. Best of all, he loved the noisy interference between stations when transmission ceased. What was it he no longer wanted to hear, he who had listened so intently to the private scream of the soul tormented by jealousy, grief, anger or fear of death and had portrayed it unforgettably in his art?

At the Munch Museum in Oslo you can buy a plastic inflatable version of the figure in The Scream. Repackaged by commerce, this icon of anxiety and despair becomes a humorous toy or gift. Munch would, I think, have been amused. Although convinced he was doom-laden, he leavened his autobiographical writings with comedy, and in his art he liked to play iconoclastic jokes. He inserted a naked women into the frame he drew around his portrait of Strindberg and called the playwright “Stindberg” (“mountain of hot air”). The sitter, when they next met, placed a revolver on the table. Both details, in subsequent printings, were duly altered.

Munch moved in an atmosphere of heightened drama. Those around him indulged in a fin-de-siécle cocktail of drugs, madness, suicide, sexual experimentation, nihilism, anarchism and spiritualism. Much can be deduced from his art, but the facts surrounding his life remain obscure to an English-speaking audience. Though he sought to portray communal emotions, he claimed that his work fitted together “like the pages of a diary” . A biography was, therefore, needed to uncover the turbulent experiences that tempered his art. Sue Prideaux now provides this, making use of a mass of hitherto unused material. The result is a magisterial portrait of a deeply troubled man. It is both humorous and tragic in its account of Munch’s abortive relationships with women, his dependence on drink, and his struggle for success and recognition. The conflicts within him are set in the context of late 19th-century Norway, with its emergent nationalism, its growing religious doubt and its contested move towards female emancipation. The breadth of Prideaux’s inquiry is impressive, as are her insights and understanding. An established novelist, she knows how to give us the resonant fact. We learn, for instance, that Christian Munch, Edvard’s father, opposed his son’s decision to study art and go to Paris, and that the longstanding conflict between them made painful the farewell outside the family flat. But on the steamship, Munch spotted his father watching his departure from a densely shaded space. There the incident might have ended, but one further detail is added: Christian had put on his best suit.

In his paternal role, Christian had infected the family with his religious anxiety. As a child, Edvard was made to believe that his dead mother watched everything he did. “I came frightened into this world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people,” he said. Aged five at the time of his mother’s death from TB, he, too, nearly died of it seven years later. Shortly after his recovery, his favourite sister Sophie fell victim to the disease. As she had in effect replaced his mother, a desolate longing for her remained. He kept the chair in which she died (now in the Munch Museum) all his life.

The piety, poverty and puritanism that dogged his childhood eventually gave way to a more liberal and bohemian environment. He was much helped in this move by the polemicist Hans Jaeger whose logic, Munch said, “was as sharp as a scythe and as cold as an icy blast”. Meanwhile in his art, Munch rejected “twigs and fingernails”, by which he meant the love of detail and high polish employed by realist landscape and portrait painters. He began to simplify his forms. “One must paint from memory,” he insisted. “Nature is merely the means.” He never married, although one of his mistresses, Tulla Larsen, tried to blackmail him into doing so. “I’m so unsuited to be with anybody,” he prevaricated. When in old age his friends tried to remedy his unhappy situation, he ob jected: “My sufferings are part of my self and my art… their destruction would destroy my art.” By then a European reputation, wealth, honours and far-reaching influence could not distract from his dominant theme — the commonality of human loneliness.

Frances Spalding, The Sunday Times
September 25, 2005

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