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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Edvard Munch

No artist, with the possible exception of Vincent van Gogh, ever lived so tortured an existence as did Edvard Munch. In fact the similarities between the two are uncanny. Although it's uncertain if they ever knew one another, a case could be made for their having met in that they were both living in or around Paris in 1885 when Munch spent some time there. Certainly they were brothers under the skin insofar as their fragile mental states and the Expressionistic similarities in their work is concerned. Of course van Gogh was mentally ill, while Munch's mental burdens were more emotional than psychotic. Also, van Gogh struggled to breathe life and beauty into everything he painted.  Conversely, there was a dour stench of death that dogged most of Munch's work.   

The Scream, 1893, Edvard Munch
Munch was born in 1863 in the cold, damp, darkness of a Norwegian winter.  Death was no stranger to his early life. His mother died when he was 5, a sister when he was 14. Inasmuch as his father was a doctor, working out of his home, young Munch grew up amongst death and dying. At the age of 22, he studied in Paris and was influenced for a time by the Impressionist movement.  His palette lightened, his work became almost cheery. Returning home however, he did some of his most searing, emotionally troubled works such as the ghostly Evening on Karl Johan, his somber Death in the Sick Chamber, and his wildly disturbing The Scream of 1893.  His most famous painting, this work unfortunately has been adopted by the angst-ridden Generation-X and printed on thousands of T-shirts.  It now rivals the Mona Lisa (with or without mustache) in the kitsch department.   
Early on, critics hated his work.  However, during the early years of the twentieth century, his paintings became consumed by dark, tortured manifestations of love. Critical acceptance of his work eventually came, though he was never comfortable with either such acclaim or the element of fame it brought him. Even in his depictions of love, death seems ever-present.  In 1894, convinced he was going to die young, Munch used a mirror in creating a ghostly self-portrait. The skull-like face emerges from a blackened background and has many of the same undulating shapes seen in The Scream, but its most disturbing aspect is an arm, resting across the base of the canvas, depicted in a skeletal form.  He dated the work as if it would be his last.  Ironically, he lived another 50 years, dying  peacefully in his sleep amidst the devastating aftermath of WW II.  He was 81.

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