Arthur Lubow on Edvard Munch, one of the most prolific, innovative and influential figures in modern art.
Edvard Munch, detail from Ashes, 1894. (Credit)
Edvard Munch, who never married, called his paintings his children and hated to be separated from them. Living alone on his estate outside Oslo for the last 27 years of his life, increasingly revered and increasingly isolated, he surrounded himself with work that dated to the start of his long career. Upon his death in 1944, at the age of 80, the authorities discovered—behind locked doors on the second floor of his house—a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints, as well as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, lithographic stones, woodcut blocks, copperplates and photographs. Yet in a final irony of his difficult life, Munch is famous today as the creator of a single image, which has obscured his overall achievement as a pioneering and influential painter and printmaker.
Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age—wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the “air turned to blood” and the “faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white.” Vibrating in his ears he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature.” He made two oil paintings, two pastels and numerous prints of the image; the two paintings belong to Oslo’s National Gallery and to the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both have been stolen in recent years, and the Munch Museum’s is still missing. The thefts have only added posthumous misfortune and notoriety to a life filled with both, and the added attention to the purloined image has further distorted the artist’s reputation.