Behind the Scream
By Sue Prideaux
Yale University Press,
391 pages, $43.50
The Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was the Kafka of painting. Both doom-laden artists hated their fathers. They were neurasthenic invalids, built (as Munch wrote) "of hopeless material, of old rotten wood," and poisoned by consumption. Seductive celibates, they needed loneliness to create their icons of angst. These self-loathing outcasts, driven by morbid melancholy and pathological guilt, came (in Munch's words) "frightened into the world and lived in perpetual fear of life and of people." Both felt the sexual act was a form of exquisite torture.
Munch's grandfather and sister were both insane. He described his father, an army doctor, as "obsessively religious -- to the point of psychoneurosis," and his portrait of his father stank of "hate and rotting flesh." The sickness and death of his mother and sister destroyed his faith, and convinced him that God was vengeful, selfish and terrifying. His childhood, spent in squalid flats, was scarred by extreme poverty, social isolation and chronic illness.
Known as the handsomest man in Norway, Munch was drawn to demanding and promiscuous mistresses who either devoured or abandoned him. Tulla Larsen pursued him for "blood-money" when he rejected her, and then shot him in the hand. Dagny Juel was murdered by another maniacal lover. Munch himself cracked up after alcoholic binges, bouts of vertigo and paranoid fears, and spent eight months in an insane asylum. He was treated with "electrification," curative baths and heavy doses of chloral hydrate that put him asleep for eight days. When he completed his doctor's portrait, the subject exclaimed: "I think he's pretty far gone."
Munch deliberately offended bourgeois taste in his art as well as his behaviour, and was savagely condemned by contemporary critics for the "pathological weakness in his self-development." After salutary escapes to France and Germany, where poverty forced him to paint on cardboard, he finally achieved success with a 1902 exhibition in Berlin. After receiving the Order of St. Olaf from the Norwegian government, he suddenly became famous and wealthy. But his drinking and hallucinations had actually inspired his work, and his art began to decline.
He then, deliberately and rather perversely, returned to his early penury and isolation. He never had an indoor lavatory, was afraid to sleep in a bed, took long train trips to cure insomnia and left his precious pictures outdoors to "age" in the rain.
In Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, British art historian and novelist Sue Prideaux, who divides her time between England and her ancestral Norway (her grandmother was painted by Munch), covers his last 22 years in only 27 pages, and explains how in old age he expressed his emotions in portraits of his mistresses. He started with a cool emotional tone and, "as his passion flows, the brushstrokes become hectic and the colour deepens in wild, deep rushes."
Though Joseph Goebbels praised Munch's work as truly Germanic, in 1937 his paintings were included in the notorious Nazi exhibition of "degenerate art." During the German occupation of Norway, Munch refused to be exploited for racist propaganda and was constantly threatened by arrest.
Munch wrote that "my art is self-confession. . . . Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle. . . . I live with the dead." His major paintings include the scary sexual awakening in Puberty, with menstrual bloodstains on the sheets; Death in the Sickroom, in which the grieving family hovers hopelessly around the moribundus; Heritage, with an anguished mother weeping over her syphilitic infant. He painted the desperately engulfed couple in The Kiss; the vampiric, snake-tressed figure in Madonna; the blood-streaked sky oppressing the hollow-eyed subjects in Anxiety; and the famous Scream (recently stolen from an Oslo museum) in which a skeletal figure covers his ears to shut out the screams of slaughtered animals and the howls of the insane. These works had a powerful impact on all the Germanic Expressionists.
Edvard Munch, though handsomely designed and lavishly produced, with 150 illustrations, is written in an awkward style and with strange diction. The text is filled with clichés and repetitions, including a whole paragraph in the introduction and on page 91, and contains many typos and glaring errors. Max Nordau is called "Nordenau," and Walter Rathenau, the German foreign minister, is misleadingly described as "a witty Jew unpopular with the stuffy establishment." Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen (who renounced violence) were not nihilists. It was not Frits Thaulow but Monet's son, working in Norway, who inspired Monet's northern journey.
Munch did powerful portraits of his older contemporaries, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, who shared his bleak Nordic vision. But Prideaux states rather than explains their enormous influence on the painter. She doesn't fully account for the emotional force of the paintings, and misses the opportunity to make illuminating comparisons with other artists. The disillusioned, degenerate woman, sprawled on the bed in Munch's The Morning After, recalls Hogarth's satiric Before and After paintings. His gloomy Starry Night provides a striking contrast to Van Gogh's picture with the same title. His haunting, self-assured, even arrogant Self-Portrait with Cigarette foreshadowed Beckmann's great self-portrait at Harvard. And the guilt-ridden post-coital scene in Ashes recalls, and may well have been inspired by, Degas's brooding, enigmatic Interior: The Rape.
Jeffrey Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has recently published Impressionist Quartet. His life of Modigliani will appear in March, 2006.