Most people are familiar with "The Scream,"
Edvard Munch's most famous painting. As powerful
as it is, this painting is only one of over a thousand
that he created in his long career. Individuals
traveling to Oslo can view his prolific body of work,
as only a small percentage of his original art exists
outside of Norway. Munch, a native Norwegian,
never married and thought of his paintings as his
children and seldom parted with them. Therefore,
most were not available for viewing until he passed
away. When he died in 1944 at his estate outside Oslo, he was 80 years old. The authorities found
locked in his house - a collection of 1,008 paintings,
4,443 drawings, 15,391 prints, 6 sculptures, plus
numerous woodcuts and more. Before his death
Munch had bequeathed his oeuvre to the city of
Oslo. The city built the Munch Museum to house the
major part of this collection. A smaller group can be
viewed at the National Gallery in Oslo. As one might surmise, Munch's gloomy paintings
are indicative of an unhappy life. He wrote in a
private diary, of which he kept many, "I inherited two
of mankind's most frightful enemies - the heritage of
consumption and insanity - illness and madness and
death were the black angels that stood at my cradle."
The second of five children, his thirty-year old
mother died of tuberculosis when he was only five
years old. His father who was left to care for the
children was a gloomy, religious fanatic from whom
Edvard inherited a tremendous sense of guilt. As a
young boy Edvard exhibited artistic talent but was a
sickly child who couldn't attend school regularly. He
adored his older sister Sophie whose death, nine
years after his mother's, when she was fifteen years
old scarred him for life.
Out of his family of seven, his parents and five children, only Edvard and a sister, who also never married, lived into old age. Fear of his families afflictions had made him vow early in life never to marry and his love life was equally as tragic as his childhood. Two painful love affairs left him fascinated by the theme of a forlorn man and a dominating woman. He represented women as either frail, innocent sufferers or as vampires. Not surprisingly analysts have theorized this reflects his sexual anxiety. Art was his therapy for his unresolved mental issues. "Art must be created with your own blood."
Munch was a major contributor to the Expressionist Art movement of the early 20th century, but he shunned being revered as a master or a mentor and preferred to standalone. Starting painting at 17, he spent 20 years predominantly in Paris and Berlin where he was influenced by the techniques of Manet, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, and other great masters. But Munch wished to paint emotion. "It's not the chair that should be painted, but what a person has felt at the sight of it." He developed an expressive and psychologically powerful style - painting what he had seen and never looking at it again. "I do not paint what I see, but what I saw." As an adolescent he was part of a bohemian group that were the forerunners of the Existentialists - led by Hans Jaeger. They spent hours discussing intellectual and social liberation and this was reflected in his painting.
The playwright Henrik Ibsen, although thirty years older, was also an innovator in Oslo and Munch painted scenery for several of his plays, "Ghost, Peer Gynt" and "Heda Gabler." Many scholars feel there is an intense literary and mystical approach to art that is particular to Scandinavia. Munch's paintings are full angst - many of them depicting his sister Sophie's illness and last days. While dying Sophie asked to be lifted out of bed and placed in a chair. Munch kept that chair until his death. It is now in the Munch Museum.
Eventually, his excessive drinking became uncontrollable and by the fall of 1908, he collapsed while hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side. A friend convinced him to check into a sanitarium. He emerged months later with some semblance of renewed mental stability and the determination to look on the bright side of life. Retreating to his eleven-acre estate outside of Oslo, he became increasingly isolated for the last 27 years of his life. Compared to the rest of his life, this was relatively tranquil and it was reflected in his work. He kept his distance even as he was declared Norway's National Artist. His later works were not as tortured and full of angst as his earlier works and many art historians think that therefore they are not as powerful. Increasingly however, many art lovers are returning to these later works with renewed enthusiasm.
Munch's "The Scream", painted in 1893, (originally called "Despair") is one of the world's most recognized paintings. It is said to be the icon of Modern Art, as the Mona Lisa was an icon for the Renaissance. Where the Mona Lisa depicts serenity and self-control, Munch's masterpiece depicts the uncertainty and anxiety of the modern age. The painting is a sexless creature shrieking in terror. Munch said he recreated a vision that had seized him one evening as he walked home with two friends at sunset, when he heard "a huge endless scream course through nature" and the "air turned to blood." He made two oil paintings, two pastels, and numerous prints of this image. One of the oil paintings belongs to Oslo's National Gallery and the other to the Munch Museum. Both have been stolen in recent years. The one in the Norwegian National Gallery, considered to be the most significant one, was stolen in 1994 as the Winter Olympic Games began in Norway. It was recovered later that year, undamaged, and three Norwegians were arrested. The other oil original was ripped off the wall of the Munch Museum in August of 2004, by two hooded and armed men - as a gallery of stunned visitors watched. Amazingly, there was very little security. It was recovered two years and nine days after the theft. Arrests were made and the thieves charged. This canvas did sustain damage too extensive to be repaired completely but it has been put back on display under high security.