Today is the birthday (1863) of Edvard Munch, Norwegian artist who is commonly remembered for his painting “The Scream” and little else these days. Certainly the painting is emblematic of Munch’s life, and representative of much of his work. But there is more to him than that. I don’t have space to go into great detail, so I’ll content myself with a few highlights (as I see them).
Munch was born in a farmhouse in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, and the family moved to Christiania (renamed Kristiania in 1877, and now Oslo) in 1864 when his father was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, as did Munch’s favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. After their mother’s death, Munch and his siblings were raised by their father and by their aunt Karen. Munch was often ill for much of the winters and kept out of school. To keep himself occupied he would draw by himself, and was tutored at home by various family members.
Munch wrote, “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” One of Munch’s younger sisters, Laura, was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Of the five siblings, only Andreas married, but he died a few months after the wedding. Munch wrote later, “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity.”
Munch’s father’s military pay was very low, and his attempts to develop a private side practice failed, keeping his family in genteel poverty. They moved frequently from one cheap apartment to another. Munch’s early drawings and watercolors depicted these interiors, and the individual objects, such as medicine bottles and drawing implements, plus some landscapes. By his teens, art dominated Munch’s interests. At 13, Munch had his first exposure to other artists at the newly formed Art Association, where he admired the work of the Norwegian landscape school. He returned to copy the paintings, and soon he began to paint in oils.
In 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering, where he excelled in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. He learned scaled and perspective drawing, but frequent illnesses interrupted his studies. The following year, much to his father’s disappointment, Munch left the college determined to become a painter. His father viewed art as an “unholy trade”, and his neighbors reacted bitterly and sent him anonymous letters. Munch wrote his goal in his diary: “in my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”
In 1881, Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, one of whose founders was his distant relative Jacob Munch. His teachers were sculptor Julius Middelthun and the naturalistic painter Christian Krohg. In 1883, Munch took part in his first public exhibition and shared a studio with other students. His full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, a notorious bohemian-about-town, earned a critic’s dismissive response: “It is impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.” Munch’s nude paintings from this period survive only in sketches, except for Standing Nude (1887). They may have been destroyed by his father.
During these early years, Munch experimented with many styles, including Naturalism and Impressionism. Some early works are reminiscent of Manet. Many of these attempts brought him unfavorable criticism from the press and constant rebukes by his father who eventually refused to advance him any more money for art supplies. Munch also received his father’s ire for his relationship with Hans Jæger, the local nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion” and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. Munch wrote, “My ideas developed under the influence of the bohemians or rather under Hans Jæger. Many people have mistakenly claimed that my ideas were formed under the influence of Strindberg and the Germans…but that is wrong. They had already been formed by then.” At that time he began the binge drinking and brawling of his circle.
After numerous experiments, Munch concluded that the Impressionist idiom did not allow sufficient expression. He found it superficial and too akin to scientific experimentation. He felt a need to go deeper and explore situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy. Under Jæger’s commandment that Munch should “write his life”, meaning that Munch should explore his own emotional and psychological state, he began a period of reflection and self-examination, recording his thoughts in his “soul’s diary”. This deeper perspective helped move him to a new view of his art. He wrote that his painting The Sick Child (1886), based on his sister’s death, was his first “soul painting”, his first break from Impressionism. The painting received a negative response from critics and from his family, and caused another “violent outburst of moral indignation” from the community.
By 1892 Munch had formulated his characteristic aesthetic, as seen in Melancholy which he produced in several versions. Melancholy was exhibited in 1891 at the Autumn Exhibition in Oslo. In 1892, Adelsteen Normann, on behalf of the Union of Berlin Artists, invited Munch to exhibit at its November exhibition, the society’s first one-man exhibition. However, his paintings evoked bitter controversy (dubbed “The Munch Affair”), and after one week the exhibition closed. Munch was pleased with the “great commotion”, and wrote in a letter: “Never have I had such an amusing time—it’s incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir.”
In Berlin, Munch became involved in an international circle of writers, artists and critics, including the Swedish dramatist and leading intellectual August Strindberg, whom he painted in 1892. During his four years in Berlin, Munch sketched out most of the ideas that would comprise his major work, The Frieze of Life, first designed for book illustration but later expressed in paintings. He sold little, but made some income from charging entrance fees to view his controversial paintings. Already, Munch was showing a reluctance to part with his paintings, which he termed his “children”.
The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910). There are also several lithographs of The Scream (1895 and later). The Scream is one of the most recognizable paintings in all art. Munch wrote of how the painting came to be: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, “for several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
The original German title given by Munch to his work was Der Schrei der Natur (“The Scream of Nature”). The Norwegian word skrik usually is translated as “scream” but is cognate with the English “shriek”. Occasionally, the painting has been called The Cry.
Munch hated to part with his paintings because he thought of his work as a single body of expression. So to capitalize on his production and make some income, he turned to graphic arts to reproduce many of his most famous paintings. Munch admitted to the personal goals of his work but he also offered his art to a wider purpose, “My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life—it is, therefore, actually a sort of egoism, but I am constantly hoping that through this I can help others achieve clarity.”
In 1896, Munch moved to Paris, where he focused on graphic representations of his “Frieze of Life” themes. He further developed his woodcut and lithographic technique. Munch produced multi-colored versions of “The Sick Child” which sold well, as well as several nudes and multiple versions of Kiss (1892) Many of the Parisian critics still considered Munch’s work “violent and brutal” but his exhibitions received serious attention and good attendance. His financial situation improved considerably and in 1897, he bought a summer house facing the fjords of Kristiania, a small fisherman’s cabin built in the late 18th century, in the small town of Åsgårdstrand. He called this home the “Happy House” and returned here almost every summer for the next 20 years. It was this place he missed when he was abroad and when he felt depressed and exhausted. “To walk in Åsgårdstrand is like walking among my paintings—I get so inspired to paint when I am here”.
In 1899, Munch began an intimate relationship with Tulla Larsen. They traveled to Italy together and upon returning, Munch began another fertile period in his art, which included landscapes and his final painting in “The Frieze of Life” series, The Dance of Life (1899). Larsen was eager for marriage, and Munch begged off. His drinking and poor health reinforced his fears, as he wrote in the third person: “Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.” Munch almost accepted marriage, but then fled from Larsen in 1900, also turning away from her considerable fortune, and moved to Berlin.
The good press coverage gained Munch the attention of influential patrons Albert Kollman and Max Linde. He described the turn of events in his diary, “After twenty years of struggle and misery forces of good finally come to my aid in Germany—and a bright door opens up for me.” However, despite this positive change, Munch’s self-destructive and erratic behavior involved him first with a violent quarrel with another artist, then with an accidental shooting in the presence of Tulla Larsen (who had returned for a brief reconciliation), which injured two of his fingers. She finally left him and married one of Munch’s younger colleagues. Munch took this as a betrayal, and he dwelled on the humiliation for some time to come, channeling some of the bitterness into new paintings. His paintings Still Life (The Murderess) and The Death of Marat I, done in 1906-7, clearly reference the shooting incident and the emotional after effects.
In the autumn of 1908, Munch’s anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and brawling, had become acute. As he later wrote, “My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go.” Subject to hallucinations and feelings of persecution, he entered the clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobson. The therapy Munch received for the next eight months included diet and “electrification” (a treatment then fashionable for nervous conditions, not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy). Munch’s stay in hospital stabilized his personality, and after returning to Norway in 1909, his work became more colorful and less pessimistic.
Munch spent most of his last two decades in solitude at his estate in Ekely, at Skøyen, Oslo. Many of his late paintings celebrate farm life, including several in which he used his work horse “Rousseau” as a model. Munch occasionally left his home to paint murals on commission, including those done for the Freia chocolate factory.
To the end of his life, Munch continued to paint unsparing self-portraits, adding to his self-searching cycle of his life and his unflinching series of takes on his emotional and physical states. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis labeled Munch’s work “degenerate art” (along with that of Picasso, Paul Klee, Matisse, Gauguin and many other modern artists) and removed his 82 works from German museums.
In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old. With nearly an entire collection of his art in the second floor of his house, Munch lived in fear of a Nazi confiscation. Seventy-one of the paintings previously taken by the Nazis had been returned to Norway through purchase by collectors (the other eleven were never recovered), including The Scream and The Sick Child, and they too were hidden from the Nazis.
Munch died in his house at Ekely near Oslo on 23 January 1944, about a month after his 80th birthday. The city of Oslo bought the Ekely estate from Munch’s heirs in 1946; his house was demolished in May 1960.
When I look at a platter of Norwegian open-face sandwiches I am vaguely reminded of a Munch painting. However, I’ll turn my attention to pinnekjøtt. Pinnekjøtt are lamb or mutton ribs that are prepared in a way that was originally traditional in northern and western Norway but is now popular throughout the country, especially at Christmas. I can’t give you a genuine recipe because you need to get the ribs in Norway, but I can give the idea.
The preparation of pinnekjøtt uses traditional methods for food preservation, curing, drying and in some regions also smoking as means of inhibiting the growth of micro-organisms. In home preparation of pinnekjøtt, racks of lamb or mutton are cured in brine or coarse sea salt. Once sufficiently cured, and when the weather is cold enough, the racks are hung in a cool, dark, well ventilated place to dry. In some regions, particularly in parts of Hordaland, the fresh racks are smoked prior to curing. Traditionally this was done in order to prevent mold growth during the drying process and some food historians assert that this method was inherited from the Vikings.
Before cooking, the racks are separated into individual ribs by cutting them apart with a sharp knife between the bones. The ribs must then be soaked in water in order to rinse out the salt and reconstitute the meat. Today pinnekjøtt is available in most supermarkets before Christmas, smoked or unsmoked, ready cut and sometimes also soaked, ready for cooking.
After soaking, the ribs are steamed over a little water in a large saucepan. A layer of birch twigs or strips may be placed in the bottom of the saucepan instead of a metal steamer. The name pinnekjøtt (literally: stick meat) is disputed. It may refer to the birch twigs of the cooking process, but the word ‘pinne’ in Norwegian slang is also used to refer to single ribs.