Museum  August 12, 2020  Chandra Noyes

How Edvard Munch Turned to Art for Therapy

Created: Wed, 08/12/2020 - 16:55
Author: chandra
National Gallery of Art

It may not come as a surprise that Edvard Munch (1863–1944), the painter of one of the most iconic paintings in the world, The Scream, lead a troubled life. The powerful image of a twisted figure crying out, set against a tumultuous bright red sky, evokes the depths of human despair, or as Munch described it, the “scream heard through all nature.”

The fact that Munch was able to so beautifully channel a universal feeling of anguish is due to his skill as an artist, and his own experience with grief and mental illness. An exhibition of fifty Munch prints, on view through September 6, 2020, at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Edvard Munch and the Cycle of Life: Prints from the National Gallery of Art, explores how Munch used his art to work through his pain. According to Chrysler Chief Curator Lloyd DeWitt, Ph.D., "The work of the Norwegian artist has come to symbolize the crisis of modern life. The Chrysler’s exhibition is an original concept that focuses on Munch’s career-long obsession with the theme of the cycle of life, from the seeds of love and the passing of love to anxiety and death."

1 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Epstein Family Collection, 1990.
Munch print of a female Madonna figure, nude from the waist up, against a black background with brown frame
Madonna, 1985. Color lithograph and woodcut (1902 printing) on oriental paper: lithograph printed from 3 stones in beige, red and black; woodcut printed from 1 block in blue.

Munch’s young life was overshadowed by bereavement, his mother having died of tuberculosis when he was small, and the disease having taken his favorite sister within a decade. Munch and his siblings were left with a strict religious father, and Munch himself suffered from chronic bronchitis, making the possibility of death never far from his mind. This print of a Madonna figure is different from the religious depictions of the Madonna we are accustomed to, and infuses what is usually the embodiment purity, safety, and nuturing with anxiety and fear.

2 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Epstein Family Collection , 2010
Edvard Munch black and white print of a large black urn at the center, with a woman's face above and writhing female bodies below
The Urn, 1896. Lithograph in black on Japan paper.

Created concurrently with Munch’s illustrations of Baudelaire’s poem Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), The Urn further illustrates Munch’s anxiety surrounding women and love. Baudelaire’s poem and eponymous text criticize modern life through examining themes of decadence and eroticism.

3 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection , 1943
Edvard Munch black and white print of the scream, a figure calls on in anguish against a wavy landscape
Geschrei (The Scream), 1895. Lithograph.

Munch’s most famous work, which was originally painted in 1893, came from a moment of being overwhelmed by his own mortality. He described the moment in his diaries: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” Munch created two versions of the work in paint and two in pastels, as well as a lithograph stone from which this print was taken.

4 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Epstein Family Collection, 2006
Edvard Munch black on white print of nude figures reaching up a black monolith
Funeral March, 1897. Lithograph in black.

Much like The Scream, Munch's depiction of a funeral march captures the pure emotion of a real moment in time, profoundly evoking human suffering. No stranger to mourning, his image conjures the rising and mounting tides of grief.

5 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Epstein Family Collection , 2002
Edvard Munch black line print of a nude woman with long hair kneeling, clutching flowers to her face
Omega and the Flower from Alpha and Omega, 1908–09. Lithograph in black.

In 1908, Munch was hospitalized to treat his anxiety and alcoholism. In addition to electroshock therapy, Munch and his psychotherapist revisited the traumas of his early life in the hopes of healing those wounds. During his eight months of treatment, Munch created Alpha and Omega, a series chronicling the first humans, his own version of Adam and Eve.

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National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Epstein Family Collection , 2002
Edvard Munch black on white print of a nude figure with hands at their face looking anguished in a wavy landscape
Alpha’s Despair from Alpha and Omega, 1908–09. Lithograph in black.

While Omega is shown as young and innocent, clutching flowers, Alpha is shown as being cast out and is killed at the end of the story. Munch’s characters reflected his own love story with the young Tulla Larsen, with whom he had an ill-fated affair, leaving the artist broken-hearted, threatening suicide, and suffering from a gunshot wound that disfigured one of his fingers, not unlike his contemporary, Vincent van Gogh.

7 of 7
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Epstein Family Collection, 2013
Edvard Munch woodblock print of a crowd of figures beneath a wavy red sky
Crowds in a Square, 1920. Color woodcut.

Following his treatment in 1908, Munch's outlook improved and he was able to better manage his drinking. He worked as a successful portraitist and painted many pastoral scenes of his estate in Oslo until his death in 1944, having survived World War I and the Spanish Flu. Though Crowds in Square is reminiscent of The Scream, it is not as out-right distraught as some of his other works, showing how his style remained intact even while his subject matter brightened.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.