Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

(1863-1944)

Edvard Munch, født i Løten, norsk maler og grafiker. Influert av symbolismen beveget Munch seg bort fra naturalismen, og søkte gjennom personlige fremstillinger å uttrykke det moderne menneskets psykiske liv. Skrik (1893) er blitt stående som et ikonisk uttrykk for en fin-de-sièclelivsinnstilling, preget av fremmedgjøring og angst. Munchs uttrykksfulle kunst kom til å øve innflytelse på den tyske ekspresjonismen.

Edvard Munchs far, Christian Munch, var lege, bror av historikeren P. A. Munch. Kort etter guttens fødsel flyttet familien til Oslo. Morens og den eldste søsterens tidlige død satte et uutslettelig preg på Munchs følsomme sinn. Sammen med farens religiøse grublerier og egen sykelighet var dette med på å gi hans kunst dens grunntrekk av hvileløs selvransakelse. Etter å ha gått en tid på teknisk skole bestemte han seg 1880 for å bli maler, og var fra 1881 elev av Julius Middelthun på Tegneskolen og året etter av Christian Krohg. Krohg ble ved siden av Frits Thaulow og Hans Heyerdahl hans nærmeste maleriske forbilde.

Bare vel 20 år gammel malte han sitt første modne arbeid, Morgen, en ung, halvkledd pike på sengekanten; en mesterlig gjennomført naturalistisk lys- og atmosfærestudie. Etter et kort besøk i Paris våren 1885 oppstod det staselige helfigurportrettet av maleren Karl Jensen-Hjell og det djervt impresjonistiskeforsøket Dansemoro. En ny malerisk stil, bort fra naturalismens bundethet, bryter gjennom med Det syke barn (1885–86, senere ofte gjentatt), der et smertelig gjenopplevd barndomsminne har funnet en uttrykksform av sjelden enkelhet og strenghet. De samtidig malte, nå tapte utgaver av Pubertet og Dagen derpåkjennes fra senere gjentagelser (1894–95).

My Art has been a Self-Confession.

Throughout his life, Edvard Munch scrutinised his own ‘ego’ in both images and words, and his depictions are at all times linked to his own life-situation. “My art has been a confession,” he wrote, and via his study of himself he enlarged this into an understanding of the emotional life of modern man – the core theme of The Frieze of Life. “In my art I have tried to explain life and its meaning to myself – I also believe I have helped others do so.

The self-portraits constitute a large, fascinating part of Munch’s artistic career, and they are like a diary that informs the reader about the artist’s life and self-knowledge. Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm is Munch’s first graphic self-portrait, executed at M.W. Lassally’s in Berlin in early autumn

Munch was then 31 years old. The artist moved in the intellectual circle around August Strindberg, Stanislaw Przybyszewski, Richard Dehmel and Julius Meier-Graefe, whose regular rendezvous was the wine bar Zum schwarzen Ferkel. Munch had already drawn attention to himself because of his controversial art. In a radical artistic idiom and with an expressive use of colour, the pictures he painted at that period dealt with angst and the tension-filled relationship between man and woman.

When Munch started to work with lithographic techniques, the first works were only done in black and white. This offered a potential for developing an idiom based on strong contrasts, something which Munch fully exploited in Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm. Despite its relatively modest size, the picture is considered to be one of the artist’s most striking and powerful self-portraits. The face is finely drawn with a lithographic crayon, the pitch-black space behind is evenly coated with lithographic tusche and appears to have an almost silky surface.

The portrait convention of using a dark background and an illuminated face brought forward in the picture surface has long traditions, but it is used by Munch in a new way. The black space seems to be indefinable, almost a vacuum, and the head appears to be floating free. Along the bottom edge of the picture he has drawn the arm of a skeleton, and parallel with this along the upper edge a border with the inscription “EDVARD MUNCH – 1895 –.” Munch let some of the letters in his name be reversed. In addition, he has created a symbolic empty space between his name and the year of the lithograph’s creation. The face has been drawn naturalistically, but the combination of the inscription and the skeleton arm, combined with the timeless feeling produced by the black space means that we leave the naturalistic artistic idiom and enter the world of symbolism. Munch’s face has a feeling of calm about it. Despite the fact that he is looking straight forward, his gaze seems to be dull and remote. His right eyelid is drooping slightly, something that intensifies the introverted nature of the artist. The face has a lifeless appearance and can even look like a death-mask. The deathly pale face, the black surface, the skeleton arm and the inscription produce associations with a headstone, the picture having the appearance of a posthumous memory of the artist. A link is created between the name-board and the skeleton arm – Munch omits adding a year of birth and of death, but the skeleton arm reminds us of the brevity of our earthly life.

Ever since childhood, Munch’s health was frail – illness had ravaged his family, resulting in the early deaths of both his mother and his sister Sofie. These events had had a profound influence on Munch, and he executed pictures that used death-related motifs throughout his life: “Illness, madness and death were the black angels that watched over my cradle and have since followed me through life,” he wrote. In Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm, we can see the suggestion of a black angel – or bird of prey – which sets up associations with Munch’s autobiography and indicates the mood of the picture. Wrapped over the head hangs a limp, black bird. Its beak and head rest between the right eye and the ear – two important sensory organs. The arc of its wing falls over his forehead, forming Munch’s head of hair.

That Munch as a young artist in his early thirties went around with thoughts of death may be due to his lack of belief that he would live long, but also to ideas that characterised the disillusions of the age. Symbolism’s flirt with death was at any rate a topical phenomenon. The symbolic framework can be seen in the light of this, and it was a technique Munch was to develop further in his Madonna lithographs and in the portrait of his friend August Strindberg. But at the same time as the skeleton arm symbolises death, it also represents the artist’s foremost tool – that which by creative force transmits the message of the artist’s mind to the picture surface. While his body is mortal, he will live immortally via his art – ars longa, vita brevis.ii First and foremost, this is a portrait of the artist that tells us about both the artist and art.