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Ruminations on Munch

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by Anna K. Norris


The paintings are moods, impressions of the life of the soul, and together they represent one aspect of the battle, between man and woman, that is called love.
Edvard Munch

Preliminary Thoughts:

I am wary of writing about art. I am weary of writing about art. It is too easy to fall into stereotypes and forget to see with the heart. It is too easy to fall into an emotional response arrived at from a set of experiences, peculiar to myself, and forget to see with the intellect. Even when I trust the artist's own words about his or her work, I am wary and weary because it is possible that the artist, too, is not clear about the result of his or her efforts. I am wary of poking an analytical nose into the acts of creation, weary of those who glorify creation and make it a deific action. It is not. It is an action which occurs as an unavoidable result of (misplaced) energy.

My parentheses remind me that though channeled energy always results in a creation of some sort, it might be the creation of destruction. By virtue of an artist's personality he or she wishes to create rather than destroy; but the creation of art also creates a new avenue for destruction, ultimately. At the onset, something new springs from the psyche, through which touching someone else becomes possible-but only by breaking the barriers of communication. The fact that we must coexist in separate physical bodies institutes this initial barrier, and confounds the efforts of the artist to ever communicate truly and purely. The artist begins, though, to restructure the barriers of time and space-barriers of communication between people who have never met each other. In creating a bridge the artist destroys a distance.

It is only realizing the destruction inherent in creation that allows me to attempt to read a piece of art. Even so, I become involved in an acrimonious confrontation with the artist; I am trying to break barriers of space and time to reach into the state of mind of the artist at the time of creation. In creating a piece of art which intrigues a viewer such that she wishes for more from a piece than it is able to give her, the artist creates a confrontation. The art object itself, then, is both my bridge and the wall that stops me; it is my only clue to the thoughts of the other person, but its nature is to conceal. It derives its power from its physical presence, and its manipulation of the viewer's senses, and through that tangibility conceals the forces behind it.

An interesting piece of art seduces the viewer into curiosity about the forces behind it; the piece shifts attention from itself to the interaction between it and its creator. Through this process the art piece entices the viewer's mind to destroy its original intrigue with the piece and to vainly attempt to reach into the piece more; to reach into the space that houses the interaction between artist and art work. The initial barriers of communication resound now, reverberate and reinforce themselves with frustrating firmness. So I am left here, wary and weary, with a piece of art, and an artist, and a space in between.

Still I cannot turn away from the seductive qualities of one particular set of paintings by Edvard Munch which hold in their falsely two-dimensional surfaces the elements of human emotion that most intrigue me. They are Sirens, and I didn't have the foresight to be tied to the mast of my ship so that I could experience them without being so enchanted as to involve myself in an inquiry. Munch painted images which combine love and pain, sacrifice and longing, death and creation, in such a way that I want to know more about those relationships-but only he can tell me more, and he has told all that he will tell, in the paintings. I have been teased, wary and weary as I am, into assuming a destructive role myself and breaking into those beautiful, static, two dimensions to try to see into the forbidden space that the process of creation establishes.


Sickness, madness, and death were the black angels who stood round my cradle at birth.
Munch (qtd. in Bye 8)

The intensity of pain and anxiety that appears in Munch's paintings has its roots in Munch's early childhood. Far from spending his most vulnerable and impressionable years in comfort and safety, Munch's childhood was marked by the death of his mother and sister, and by his father's oppressive religious fanaticism (Hughes 277). Besides laying the framework for his emotional makeup, the series of tragic events also established links between love and pain, women and death which were to follow Munch throughout his artistic career.

Munch was also involved with a group of artists and intellectuals in Oslo in the 1880's who called themselves "Boheme." Their leader was a man named Hans Jaeger, who espoused rebellion against the bourgeois institutions of morality and family life and was interested in creating and maintaining political, social, and sexual freedom (Schneede 10). These principles were accompanied by a need for creative freedom and a feeling of urgency at creating art which would "arise from the blood of one's own heart" (Munch qtd. in Schneede 11). Munch's involvement with this society resulted in a strong sense of purpose about the creation of art; in a statement meant to stand as a banner for the group, he explains:

We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one's innermost heart. (Munch qtd. in Eggum 15)

These ideas establish Munch's sense of necessity and urgency in creating an art which can speak to other people. It is a description of an attempt to break the inherent communication barrier, and speak to the viewer directly.

Though it is at best a sketchy rendering, with this framework we can begin to understand the origin of Munch's major themes, specifically that of love and its relation to pain, death, and creation. The set of works most directly concerned with this theme is named "The Frieze of Life," which is a series of paintings divided into four sections: "Birth of Love," "Bloom and Decay of Love," "Fear of Life," and "Death" (Selz 61). A few specific paintings within the work as a whole bring into play some of Munch's strongest themes: two pieces are "Madonna," and "Death and the Maiden." These two exemplify the relation between Eros and Thanatos that so fascinated Munch.

Munch described "Madonna" in this way: "Now life and death join hands. The chain is joined that ties the thousands of past generations to the thousands of generations to come" (qtd. in Hughes 281). He painted a woman in warm hues, her torso bare and her head tilted back, with long reddish hair flowing around her body. Her eyes are closed, her lips slightly parted in silent rapture. Her face is pale and bony, and crowned with a deep orange halo. The corpse-like face above the voluptuous, sensuous body is a strange rendition of the Madonna as virgin-especially given that the work was originally presented with a painted frame of circling sperm. The lithograph versions have the sperm border, and a fetus with its arms crossed in the corpse position looking up unhappily at the Madonna from the lower left corner. Munch is playing with opposites here: fertility and virginity, lust and chastity, and in his words, life and death.

"Death and the Maiden" is an even more explicit rendition of the same themes. The woman and the skeleton clasp each other in a purely erotic pose. She is, as in the "Madonna," very sensuous and voluptuous, while the skeleton is cold, thin, harshly white. The figures-death and sex-are thrust together within a background that is black and chasmic. They are framed by red, upward-moving sperm cells on the left, and two fetuses on the right in the same style as the "Madonna" fetus, with their arms crossed over their chests in the corpse-position. The moment of conception parades around the figures, who are taunted by the hollow stares of the fetuses. The unborn present their judgment on the nature of sex, conception, life, their own ultimate demise.

The link between Eros and Thanatos is embodied in the images-he imbeds it there so that he might reach us through our own relationship to love. He presented his paintings as packets of emotional impressions rather than as a narrative, thereby allowing us to arrange and rearrange the impressions, to create our own oppositions and links. Throughout, though, he firmly establishes the destruction inherent in creation. A creation of the union between two people results in conception, which is quite clearly the beginning of death. The idea of love involves an opposition in trying to combine with the other person, in trying to break the original barriers of communication. It is an attempt to move together towards one space while still retaining one's own identity.

Throughout, Munch embodies destruction and creation in the image. Thus does the "Frieze of Life" play out in its imagery the relationships among Munch, the work, and the viewer. We read the object only through a series of destructions: we restructure the image in our minds and pick at its elements to understand its whole, we reach into the space set up by the creative process to fish around for motives and influences. The art object seduces the viewer into believing in a successful break of communication barriers, then traps him or her in the liminal space. In short, Munch mirrors the viewer/artist-creation/destruction relationship inside his images. Actually, his work employs the relationship between creation and destruction both implicitly and explicitly. He combines love and pain, sacrifice and longing, death and creation: dualities so descriptive of the process of creation, and of the artist's relationship with his work, that they in fact provide a framework for understanding that relationship.

The creative process for Munch involved working and reworking the same themes. His process evinces ideas of rebirth; the myriad layers of emotional significance, the layers of time and restless pain which unfolded between each successive painting, were born of the intensity of his own original emotions. The emotions were reworked several times, through successive paintings, and fashioned into an image-structured to show how love, sex, and creation necessarily encircle pain and death.

Munch's creations were a bridge to his past, a physical manifestation of the emotions that dominated his psyche. As Schneede notes, repetition became a means of clarification and resolution of pain (notes to plate 3). Through time and reworkings, he ostensibly achieved a destruction of these emotions' power or intensity. By giving the emotions structure in an image form, he restructures their hold on his life. Then the viewers take it into themselves-take the structured image and restructure it into emotions of their own. This very cycle is also the cycle of life and death that Munch describes most explicitly in "Madonna" and "Death and the Maiden." The paintings are physical manifestations of the relationship between creation and destruction, which underscores the entire process of Munch's artwork.

And so I find myself in a strange and alien, liminal space. I have Munch's paintings before me still, a long process of wondering and speculating behind me, and an aching realization that his ideas are manifest in my own life. I could not leave his ideas in the paintings, but had to drag them out and examine them closely enough that they pushed their way into my psyche. I am in the process of living the connections that Munch felt, searching through the links of creation and destruction, life and death. I am weary still, but my wariness is soothed by the reassurance of his perception of those combinations asserting themselves from the surface of the images. They are real, and not imagined, contrived formulas invented by someone who fancies herself able to read a piece of art.

Having discovered that Munch, too, was drawing with comparable emphasis from the emotional and the intellectual, coaxes some of my wariness into submission. Munch was inviting me to take up this search, because it is only by looking into the process behind his work that I could begin to understand the result of linking creation and destruction in the images; he awakens in the viewer the realization that destruction is inherent in every creation, even (and perhaps especially) in the creation of art.

Works Cited

Bye, Alf. Edvard Munch. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Eggum, Arne. "Edvard Munch: A Biographical Background." Edvard Munch: The Frieze of Life. London: National Gallery, 1992. 15-24.

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Schneede, Uwe M. Edvard Munch: the Early Masterpieces. New York: Norton, 1988.

Selz, Jean. E. Munch. New York: Crown, 1974.

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