This is the sixteenth essay in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
If we have to name one Norwegian painter, and one only, it will for sure be Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Reference works all over the world have articles about him and even if his name was not recognized, one of his paintings is a best known worldwide. It is “The Scream”.
Postcards, T-shirts, reproductions, and new artworks use this image.
It has become an icon for expressionism, the new art style at the time of Edvard Munch. Munch painted several versions of it as well as wood cuts. It expresses despair, protest, anxiety.
On a background of a multi-red sky, a person is leaning on a fence, a line leading endlessly to the background of the picture. The motif of a distorted face in a black silhouette is like a visual sign for a cry. It is a picture of emotions more than of what a man looks like. Typical for Edvard Munch’s pictures, it is painted with long brush strokes and strong colours that does not submit to the rules of painting at the time. It was sensational in its own time and in retrospect, it has become an icon of expressionism as a style. It is not about rendering the subject according to what it looks like, but by how it feels. Proportions, colour reproduction and details in the subject are expressions of moods in the painter. Whoever sees the picture recognizes the feeling. This picture belongs to the new fresh and raw way of painting called expressionism. The pictures say something that words cannot express.
This same style of painting is seen in “Despair”.
This is an edition of The Scream in which a person leans to the same railing, the same sky shows the connection to The Scream. The painting is titled “Despair” and we see the same long, sensitive lines painted with strokes that empty the paint in contiguous coats.
Edvard Munch spent years before he arrived at this expressive art. He painted his way through the current styles of painting where Impressionism was prominent. Impressionism reproduced a subject based on how it was visually perceived. Munch’s search for showing emotions in the picture was expressed early on by his choice of motive. “The Sick Child” is an emotional painting of one of Munch’s loved ones on her death bed, where the mother mourns. The picture shows the mother’s grief, but also the artist’s despair at losing a loved one.
From “The Sick Child” to “The Scream” a new art style was created. Influenced from what Edvard Munch saw of art on his travels, especially in France, he left what he saw as a romantic imagery with emphasis on the impression of colours. From then on, we see an art of expression that changed people’s perception of what a painting can be, from the beautiful to the expressive.
It did not happen without protest. When Edvard Munch first showed this type of paintings in Germany, the exhibition was closed after a few hours. The images were too challenging.
The cultured elite did not want to see themselves portrayed in such a way. The secret emotions: Unhappy love, jealousy, depression, loneliness, despair should not be something the viewer was forced to endure at an art exhibition.
Psychology was a new science in which doctor Sigmund Freud put forward theories about sexuality as a driving force in human behaviour. Edvard Munch painted this force into pictures that were perceived as obscene. “Vampire” as an expression of desire, has colours and lines that emphasize the fierceness in the relationship between woman and man.
Madonna is a returning theme with Munch. Framed with sperm in undulating motion around the image, it leaves us in no doubt about the strong feelings described.
Edvard Munch lived in a small cabin on the seashore of Åsgårdstrand, a town by the Oslo fjord in Norway. His art expresses his own strong emotions. In some portraits he painted of famous people, emotions are revealed, often with a dramatic light, shadows and colours, but without detail.
Edvard Munch’s art has been left as one of Norway’s best-known contributions to world art. His paintings were collected at the Munch Museum in Oslo. His entire collection has now moved to the new national museum, soon ready for opening in central Oslo.
Text: Alfred Vaagsvold
Translation from Norwegian: Grethe Raddum