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.
Sophie's death brought about the end of his childhood religious faith. That began a series of clashes with his father, who reacted to his announced intention of becoming an artist by saying it would be like going to live in a brothel, which turned out to be fairly accurate. Edvard was soon drawn into the small but provocative bohemia that was just getting started in Christiana, and he later frequented similar groups, not to mention brothels, in Paris and Berlin. The bohemias of Europe in the 1880s and '90s were no longer threadbare romantic Rudolfo-and-Mimi affairs. They were the beginning of modern bohemianism and modernist art, filled with talk of free love, anarchism, Darwin, Nietzsche, and absinthe.
Munch drank as heavily as the others but was an aloof, inscrutable presence at their argumentative gatherings, saying little except for occasional paradoxical, darkly humorous remarks, then disappearing to work. This, along with a certain naive and innocent aura, made him mysterious and attractive to the free-spirited women in attendance, some of them (including his first mistress) adventurous married society ladies.
Munch's affairs were almost always stormy, and his paintings and superb graphic works had their other great theme. His girlfriends figure strikingly in many of them (Madonna, The Day After, Salome, Dance of Life, and others), and his own desperation fills the others. (The Scream was intended to be part of a Frieze of Life, an eros-and-its-discontents series that included The Kiss, Vampire, Jealousy, etc.). One of his mistresses, Tulla Larsen, a Norwegian heiress, stalked him across Europe, determined to marry him or else make his life miserable, succeeding in the latter. After he refused to see her, she got him to rush over by pretending to be on the brink of suicide. There was a struggle for a gun and it went off, blowing away part of a finger on his left (nonpainting) hand. Another beautiful girlfriend in his paintings, Dagny Juel, was later the victim in a murder-suicide in Warsaw. Many of his paintings mirror the femme fatale theme common in fin-de-siècle art and literature. He wasn't a misogynist, but he seems to have come to the conclusion that women, or at least his razor's-edge relationships with them, were a threat to his work. He never married.
When he was coming of age in the early 1880s, the debate in European art circles was between Realism and Impressionism. He wasn't much interested in either. The Impressionists, he thought, were peddling "soap art" (referring to the Golden Age artwork on contemporary soap boxes), an updated paradise myth. He wanted "soul art," closely examining inner life the way Leonardo had studied anatomy. By the time of his first extended stay in Paris (1889-90), he would write, "We shall paint no more interiors with men reading or women knitting. They must be living beings who breathe, feel, suffer, and love. I shall paint a series of such paintings, and people will realize their religious nature and remove their hats before them, just as they do in church."
In Paris, thanks to the craze known as Japonisme, Japanese prints were everywhere, and along with his first glimpses of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the Belgian Symbolist James Ensor, they were catalysts for the style of The Scream and his other best-known works, with their strong, sinuous, flowing lines, contrasting vivid or lurid colors, and flattened or compressed space. Munch, a formidable reader of literature, philosophy, and science, was a good, searching writer as well, and his diaries and a document known as the "St. Cloud Manifesto," written in the Paris suburb, reveal a kind of mystical faith, half-Nietzschean, half-pantheist, a belief that everything that exists, including works of art and the colors that compose them, has its own life, its own imperishable soul. It saved him, according to Prideaux, from the suicidal nihilism of some of his bohemian cohorts.
Munch's self-imposed exile from Norway entailed almost two decades of scrounging and wandering, but it was a spiritual necessity. The constant attacks in the press made it hard for him to live there and even harder to sell his paintings. Like his countrymen Henrik Ibsen and the novelist Knut Hamsun (both of whom he knew), Munch eventually made a living in Norway only because of his popularity in Germany. When his first exhibit in Berlin was shut down, fights broke out in the artists' association, and the younger artists, supported by a few dissenting critics, formed the Berlin Succession. Munch was seen as leading the way to a new Expressionist art. He became a regular in the drunken and contentious Berlin bohemian group known as the Black Piglet, after the café it frequented, where he got to know August Strindberg and other expatriate Scandinavians, but he eventually began referring to his bohemian companions as "the fiends," wanting to avoid their penchant for occultism and trouble.
By 1908, he had developed a persecution mania about them, fueled by quarrels, fistfights, and his own heavy drinking, and he landed in a Copenhagen clinic. After that, he drank much less, his art became less brooding and introspective, and he settled in Norway, buying a farmhouse outside Oslo with the money he was getting from rich, liberal-minded Germans like Max Linde and Walter Rathenau (who was later assassinated, as the Weimar Republic foreign minister, by anti-Semitic nationalists). His portraits of them and their children are, along with his many self-portraits, among his best works.
Despite some official honors and public commissions, Munch was never completely accepted in Norway during his lifetime. ("The wounds from Norway have made life a kind of hell for me," he wrote.) During and after World War I, when Norwegian sentiment was pro-British, he was known as "the German" because of his German patrons, and as the papers kept up their attacks on him, vandals shot one of his dogs and broke the windows of his house.
In fact, he felt nothing but horror for the war and its aftermath in Germany, going there to join the demonstrations protesting Rathenau's murder. When Hitler came to power, Munch helped many German friends and artists flee, and his paintings were confiscated and included in the "Degenerate Art" exhibition of 1937. After the Nazis occupied Norway in 1940, he refused to have anything to do with them and was under constant threat of arrest.
He's now a national hero. The huge number of paintings and drawings that filled and overflowed his house (he hated to part with them, often making copies of ones he sold, and called them "my children") became the basis for the Munch Museum in Oslo.
Prideaux's is not a critical biography in the sense of evaluating individual paintings as art and determining their rank in his oeuvre. She doesn't write as an art critic, and given the variety of styles and achievements (even within the same period) in Munch's work, and the contrast between what preceded and followed his 1908 breakdown, readers will have to draw their own conclusions. But what she does is something better, a masterful job of integrating the work with the tumultuous early and quiet late life, through its autobiographical themes and its population of Munch's family, friends, and lovers. She's also good on the cultural and historical context. I caught only one minor mistake: Her rendering of Max Nordau, author of a scathing 1890s antimodernist tract called Degeneration, as "Nordenau."
This is the book to get--generously illustrated with compelling photographs and reproductions of the art--if you're entranced by the way Munch made haunting, melancholy beauty and a modern icon out of his personal anxieties. Sue Prideaux solves the puzzles in the pictures while leaving their essential mystery intact.
Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.