King of Pain : Notes on Edvard Munch
Dec. 12 is the birthday of an artist whose iconic painting, “The Scream,” overshadowed a career in which he excelled in depicting dark and tragic moments of life.
Edvard Munch (1863–1944) excelled at painting anxiety, the subject of the work seen above.
The Norwegian artist is best known for “The Scream,” seen below, which has been borrowed for products including plastic vases, socks, phone cases and, in recent times, neck gaiters and face masks.
Yet Munch also painted images that are even more unsettling. These include “Death in the Sickroom,” seen below. “The Scream” is an abstract representation of anxiety while “Death in the Sickroom” is an all too realistic portrait of mourning.
Munch maintains an air of melancholy even when he turns to what could be happier themes. Below is his 1892 painting, “At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo.
Instead of glamour, we get a sense of weariness. The fellow on the left circled in red seems bored, at best, or depressed. The man circled on the right seems annoyed.
I know little about Munch beyond a skim of the Wikipedia page about him. Born in Norway, he traveled and lived abroad, spending time in Paris and Berlin. In his last years of life, spent in Norway, Munch found his work labeled “degenerate art” by Nazis, a distinction he shares with other great painters of time, including Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, according to the Wikipedia bio.
Munch’s life was one shaped by grief and anxiety, as reflected in his paintings. Here is Munch’s “Dance of Life,” which seems more like a gathering of ghouls, no?
You can read what you want into paintings. In this one, the “Dance of Life” is shown as a spin from happier times to somber ones. The woman on the left, shown in a bright frock, becomes the woman on the left, wearing funeral black, her smile lost.
In the painting below, the lovers part, the man on the left clutching a heart that seems almost to bleed, the woman on the right floating into an unknown and possibly brighter future.
But perhaps in this melancholy year, 2020, it’s helpful to remember why Munch has held his place in our attention for many decades. He brings beauty and a boldness of design to his depictions of anxiety and grief and loss.