Edvard Munch may be just too familiar for his own good. Are you looking for an off-the-peg image of alienation? Reach for “The Scream”. Searching for that archetypal image of the sulky, fin-de-siècle symbolist temptress? Pick Munch’s “Madonna”.
Munch may be on many a teenager’s bedroom wall, but there is much that we don’t know about Norway’s greatest cultural export. Munch was an obsessive self-portraitist. From teenage years to deathbed he made and re-made his own image with a feverish intensity. And his portraits offer a clear view of how he saw himself engaging with the world. When Munch felt persecuted, he depicted himself as burning in the flames of hell; when he was more composed, he flung out his arms, and sunlight appeared to flood across his skin.
Rembrandt, another obsessive self-portraitist, may have changed costume again and again, but beneath the cloth lay a man whose essential appearance changed relatively little because he maintained, from first to last, an unerringly stable sense of himself. By contrast, Munch’s hold on what it meant to be Edvard Munch was far less sure. In this he is unlike any other great self-portraitist. No painter changes quite so much as Munch changes. No other self-portraitist has such a slippery sense of what he believes to be the essence of himself.
The first portraits belong to the teenage years. They are easily the most assured—almost cocky in their self-confidence. The image looks secure, bourgeois, somewhat haughty. The manner of self-portrayal leans towards the academic. The painted surface is relatively dense, and the paint evenly worked. Yet within a decade all that has changed. As Munch ages, the painted surface thins and thins, the strokes from his brush become more febrile, the colours are bolder, stranger and more unpredictably intense. Munch, by turns, looks ghostly, phantasmal, haunted.
As Munch himself once wrote, “Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle.” For many years, Munch lived a nomadic and disorganised life, wandering across Europe. He was unloved and misunderstood in Norway. Germany was the first country wholeheartedly to appreciate his work. He finally returned to Norway in 1909, but until his death in 1944, he had an uneasy relationship with his native land.
Painting offered some means of escape. It enabled him to face down his demons and become reconciled with himself. Munch’s paintings were his closest friends. He surrounded himself with them and hated to sell them. The kinds of paintings that he made represent a dissection of the human soul—his own in particular. For Munch, to paint realistically would have been to see the world as he never saw it. (via)