The Magazine

Artist of Anxiety

Why Edvard Munch speaks to us moderns.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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Edvard Munch

Behind the Scream

by Sue Prideaux

Yale, 391 pp., $35

EDVARD MUNCH'S LONG LIFE neatly measures Franz Kafka's short life. He was born in 1863, 20 years before Kafka, and died in 1944, 20 years after Kafka's death. They never met, but they have some things in common. Both grew up in provincial European cities, where they worked out an expressionist, visionary, dreamlike art pretty much on their own. W.H. Auden once wrote that Kafka stands to our age as Dante did to the Late Middle Ages, our age being, as Auden elsewhere christened it, the Age of Anxiety. If Kafka offered the literary emblems of our unease, Munch supplied the iconic painting, The Scream, which may be the most famous, the most reproduced, and the most parodied image in all of modern art.

The undulating spook with his hands to the sides of his head as the vertiginous fjord landscape behind him convulses under a blood-red sky didn't go over well at first in Munch's native Norway, where the press had nicknamed the artist "Bizzarro," or in Berlin, where the government closed down his first exhibition after a storm of public and critical outrage, or in Paris, where a critic summed up his paintings and their color schemes as "cancerous scribbles thrown up by a morbid imagination . . . violets that violate public order . . . police station blues . . . homicidal oranges . . . pharmaceutical reds. . . . "

Today you can get The Scream on T-shirts and coffee mugs and greeting cards.

Munch and Kafka were outstanding, tremulous, conflicted introverts who, uninterested in politics and at once skeptical and cryptically devout in religion, were dealing with their own inner demons in their work. But they ended up channeling, if not exactly the spirit of the age, at least the spirit of the age's bad dreams, many of which came true. Munch painted The Scream in 1892. Thanks to Freud and company and the history of the 20th century, we have learned a lot more about anxiety since then, and it seems to be what Munch already knew.

He acquired his demons the old-fashioned way, through his family: "Illness, insanity, and death are the dark angels who watched over my cradle and have accompanied me throughout my life," he wrote. Sue Prideaux's new biography makes it clear just how grim and fateful it all was, as if a half-dozen ominous Ibsen and Strindberg plays and a Bergman film or two had been condensed into one angst-packed Scandinavian script. But the effect isn't depressing. Munch overcame formidable odds to become a great artist (the only Scandinavian painter with a world reputation), and as a stoical loner, enigmatic, hard-drinking, prone to use his fists, with the blond good looks of a Viking hero and a series of beautiful, unstable women in his life, he's the kind of property Hollywood might go for (though it might result in something like Lust for Life). The only movie about him, however, seems to be Peter Watkins's intelligent but overly long, fragmented, and didactic Edvard Munch (1974), originally made for Norwegian television.

His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, and his sister Sophie, a year older, talented at drawing like him, and his closest friend, died of it when she was 15. This became the crucial event of his early life, returned to again and again in paintings like The Sick Child (1886), Death in the Sickroom (1893), and The Deathbed (1895). His father, Christian Munch, retreated into religious obsession. He can be seen, a white-bearded man anxiously praying, in several of the paintings.

The Munchs were a distinguished patrician family that included army officers, scholars, and clergymen, plus a conventional early 19th-century painter named Andreas Munch; but Christian was an unworldly, Dostoevsky-reading doctor, and the family had to keep moving from cheap lodgings to cheaper lodgings in Christiana (now Oslo). Another of Edvard's sisters, Laura, went from lively to erratic to mad and finally had to be sent to an institution, and his seemingly healthy younger brother Andreas died suddenly. Edvard, ill for long periods of childhood and adolescence, assumed there was an excellent chance that he, too, would die young or go mad, and he came pretty close to each.