Today is the 157th birthday of Edvard Munch. You probably know him for his painting The Scream and all it’s many cultural adaptations. I have seen The Scream where he is looking at a phone with the caption “He Tweeted What!?” on a coffee mug at a museum gift shop. Would Munch like that? Is it keeping his work relevant and in the current pop culture lexicon?
Munch was born on December 12, 1863, in Löten, Norway. In 1864, his family moved to Oslo, where his mother died four years later of tuberculosis, just the beginning of a series of familial tragedies in Munch’s life: His favorite sister died of tuberculosis, in 1877 at 15 years old; another sister spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness; and his only brother died of pneumonia at 30.
In 1881, he enrolled at the Norway Royal School of Art and Design. The following year, he rented a studio with six other artists and had his first exhibition.
Three years later, Munch received a scholarship and traveled to Paris, where he spent three weeks. After returning to Oslo, he began working on new paintings, including The Sick Child, which he finished in 1886. It was the first work in Munch’s break from the realist style. The painting depicts his feelings about the death of his sister nine years earlier.
From 1889 to 1892, Munch lived mainly in France, funded by government grants, embarking on his most productive, as well as the most troubled, period. Munch undertook a series of paintings he called the Frieze of Life, encompassing 22 works for a 1902 Berlin exhibition, with paintings titled Despair (1892), Melancholy (c. 1892–93), Anxiety (1894), Jealousy (1895) and The Scream (sometimes known as The Cry). Painted in 1893, The Scream became one of the most famous paintings ever, with Munch’s mental state on full display.
The collection was a huge success, and Munch became famous. He found brief happiness in a life otherwise filled with excessive drinking, family misfortune and mental illness.
Success wasn’t enough to help with Munch’s inner demons, and as the new century began, his drinking got worse. In 1908, hearing voices, he collapsed and checked himself into a private sanitarium, where he drank less and regained some sort of composure. In the spring of 1909, he checked out, eager to get back to work, but most of his great works were behind him.
Munch moved to a country house in Norway, where he lived in isolation and began painting landscapes. He almost died in the pandemic of 1918-19 but recovered and survived for more than two decades (he died in 1944). Munch painted right up to his death, often depicting his own deteriorating condition in his work.
There are several versions of The Scream. In 1912, the version below, executed in 1895 in pastel on cardboard, sold for $120 million at auction at Sotheby’s, a record-breaking price, sealing its reputation as one of the most famous and important works of art ever produced.
Images via Wikimedia Commons