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Fire and ice: On the trail of Edvard Munch


"I don't compete with the camera," remarked Edvard Munch, "and I have no fear of it as long as it cannot be used in heaven or hell." When you enter the extraordinary Munch exhibit at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art, the painting that immediately compels your gaze is Munch's flaming Self-Portrait in Hell, the artist depicting himself where no camera could ever capture his image. The field of the painting is dramatically divided between black smoke and igneous illumination, with the artist's naked body straddling the boundary, his contours outlined in swirling smoke, his torso aflame as if fire and flesh were almost the same substance. Hell is inside the artist as he poses brazenly, almost flamboyantly, for his own X-ray portrait, the scrawled signature "E. Munch" branded on his abdomen at the agonizing edge of the canvas. You ask yourself whether the subject is suffering defiantly in hell or celebrating himself triumphantly aflame. Then, of course, you ask yourself whether he is a mere sinner or whether he is Satan himself.

The date of Munch's Self-Portrait in Hell was 1903, at the threshold of the 20th century. In 1903 Lenin first affirmed the principles of Bolshevism at the Russian Social Democratic Congress in London. In 1904 James Joyce fell in love with Nora Barnacle in Dublin, moved into the Martello Tower at Sandycove, and wrote the first version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1905 Sigmund Freud in Vienna published the celebrated case history of "Dora," with his psychoanalysis of her hysteria, and also his pathbreaking three essays on sexuality. During that decade Edvard Munch was already famous throughout Europe as a pioneer of Post-Impressionism, advancing the modernist values of Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Cezanne. Munch was 40 in 1903, halfway through his life as the century turned, the perfect age for a descent into hell according to Dante's medieval precedent: "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita," "in the middle of our life's journey." Munch's long life spanned two centuries; he was born in 1863, the year Americans fought the battle of Gettysburg, and he died in 1944, when GIs were liberating Europe from Hitler. At the time of his death, his native Norway was under Nazi occupation.

Munch's fanatically Lutheran father indoctrinated the young artist, as a child, in a 19th-century Norwegian theology of hell that rivaled the Irish Roman Catholic education of Joyce, as described in Portrait of the Artist. "I learned early about the misery and dangers of life," recalled Munch, "and about the after-life, about the eternal punishment which awaited the children of sin in hell." Throughout his life, Munch explored the topography of the hell that he found around him and inside him, developed his infernal images without resort to modern photography, and produced a modern emotional map of the terrain. The self-portrait is a sort of souvenir of travel to tell us where the artist has been; and the artist's hell, as Dante discovered in the Middle Ages, turns out to be an extremely interesting destination.

When I step out into the city of Oslo, there is a full moon in a dark sky over Karl Johan Street. It's around 8:30 on a January morning, a half hour before dawn, and the Norwegians are going to work. Oslo is far more temperate than Norway's Arctic north, but the city is frigid by comparison to Boston, to say nothing of the French Riviera, which Munch visited as a young artist, painting the gambling hall of Monte Carlo. Munch described Oslo, called Christiania until 1925, as a "Siberian" city, his hometown and his chilly chosen place of exile from the art centers of Paris and Berlin. Today it's one of the priciest cities in the world, showcasing the Norwegian prosperity that is nourished by the serendipitous circumstance of offshore oil in the North Sea.

I am on my way to the Munch Museum, slowly and precariously heading uphill from the subway station on a slope of sheer ice. Munch, throughout his career, was curiously reluctant to sell his works, declaring, "I have no other children than these pictures" and that "to be able to continue working I must have them around me." When he died he was in possession of some 1,000 paintings, 3,000 drawings and watercolors, and 18,000 prints--the critical mass of his whole life's work, including Self-Portrait in Hell--all of which he bequeathed to the city of Oslo. Nearly 20 years later, the Munch Museum was built as a home for this trove. It opened in 1963, the year of the artist's centennial.

Taken together with the select Munch masterpieces that hang in the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo, the vast collection of the Munch Museum makes the city unquestionably the unique and crucial place of pilgrimage for anyone who cares about this artist. The Munch Museum, a low-lying modern structure of glass panes and stone slabs, has organized a display that follows a sort of spiritual itinerary through the artist's studies of the infernal emotions. In this cathartic cathedral you pass through the chapels of Jealousy and Melancholy and finally arrive at the altar where, flanked by Despair and Anxiety, there hangs, enthroned, the most famous icon of modern art: Skrik, The Scream.

"People say it's now more famous than the Mona Lisa," comments Arne Eggum, director of the Munch Museum, a little dubiously; bearded and informal, he may know more about Munch than anyone in the world today. Eggum can testify to the busloads of foreign tourists who visit the museum; and the museum shop offers plenty of Scream souvenirs: the key chains, the mouse pads, the umbrellas. These are souvenirs to tell the world that you've been to Oslo, or maybe just that you're surviving the anxieties and despairs of modern life along with everyone else. Boston College has a magnificent lithograph of The Scream, printed from a stone plate dating from 1895, two years after Munch first painted the image which has become his trademark. Some people call the figure a man, some a woman, though it could also be a child, and there is even something oddly extraterrestrial about its pathos, as if an alien creature had descended to earth and found our planet's atmosphere unbearable. The lithograph shows even more brilliantly than the painting does the importance of the fiercely curving lines that surround the scream-figure, representations of violent force fields, swirling storms, or sonic explosions bearing in on the frantic little creature who lives inside us all. For this sort of radically intense representation of subjective emotional experience, Munch is considered one of the artistic pioneers of the 20th-century style called Expressionism. Really, The Scream is the perfect counterpart to the Mona Lisa: her smile conveys a supreme Renaissance composure, a humanist mastery over her own individuality, while the scream-figure expresses the modern decomposition of the individual personality, the dissolution of sanity, Mona Lisa demented.

You can hear the scream when you look at the lithograph, and, just as Munch in hell defied the new technology of photography, Munch's screaming image of the 1890s conceded nothing to the dawning era of recorded sound. Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in New Jersey in 1877, but his machine could not be used in heaven or hell. More relevant was the invention of psychoanalysis in contemporary Vienna, and 1895, the date of the Scream lithograph on display at Boston College, was also the year that Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published their landmark Studies on Hysteria. These were Freud's first investigations into the repressed traumas that lurked beneath the civilized crust of modern life, sometimes erupting into inexplicable symptoms: the nervous twitch, the hysterical hallucination, or even pathological aphonia, the loss of voice. The suppression of the human scream was the subject of Freud's psychoanalysis. The hysterical explosion of suppressed trauma was the subject of Munch's artistic masterpiece.

Yet, when I finally reach the altar of The Scream in the Munch Museum in Oslo, there is gathered before the icon an unexpected congregation of 10-year-old Norwegian schoolchildren, on a class trip to learn something about their country's most famous artist. For the children, it is a sort of civics lesson in Norwegian national pride as well as in elementary art appreciation, but Munch's subjects are not particularly patriotic, and one might even hesitate about recommending them enthusiastically for children. Quite aside from the terrors of hell and the improprieties of sex, Munch depicts the scariest human emotions in their most intensely painful manifestations. Yet, beginning in kindergarten, young Norwegians are initiated into the mysteries of the Munch Museum, and, as I watch from the vicinity of Despair, the 10-year-olds arrange themselves around The Scream according to the international 10-year-old protocol. The girls are sitting attentively in front of the painting, dutifully answering the questions posed by the young Norwegian guide, and the boys are standing behind the girls, shoving and poking one another and requiring the intermittent disciplinary attention of their teachers.

The guide, slight and fair, is a conscientious objector who is fulfilling his national service by leading children's tours at the museum instead of joining the army. "I ask them why it's called The Scream, he tells me later, "and they always say, because someone is screaming." The unsettling question, however, is whether the hysterical little creature, mouth wide open, hands clasped to the side of its head, is the one who is screaming. Now the guide reads to the kids Munch's own commentary on the painting: "One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord--the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood-red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream." So is the creature screaming, or is it covering its ears because it hyper-sensitively hears the scream of nature that no one else can hear? The guide covers his own ears in imitation of the painting, and the children cover their ears. "The kids can be confused," he tells me later, implying that some confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. "Or they can think, 'Aha!' "

When I finally am standing in front of the Scream lithograph at Boston College, amid the gowns and tuxedos of opening night, my "Aha!" moment is a sudden appreciation of the work's peculiar elegance in black and white, the clouds drained of their bloody color, all sinuous curves and vividly grained textures--Sigmund Freud meets Art Nouveau. For a moment I wonder whether the little creature is actually singing, not screaming, a fierce operatic aria echoed in the curvilinear contours of nature. Is there even some element of fun in this scene: a ride on the roller coaster or a night at the opera?

"I tell them that I know art seems boring," the young Norwegian guide says about the children, "but this is about their Norwegian identity." Yet when I tell him I'm from Boston, he responds enthusiastically, because he's a Bruins fan, a Celtics fan, and even a Red Sox fan. I am thinking about Norwegian identity on my way back downtown from the Munch Museum, back to Karl Johan Street, which Munch painted in the 1890s as an eerie urban scenario of desperate human alienation. Now it's bleak and dark at four o'clock, but there is a frozen rink for ice skating, and the public sound system is playing the Village People at full blast: "YMCA"! Even the most sensitive Norwegian would not be able to hear the scream of nature over the amplified pulse of American pop.

"Norway needed a painter," Arne Eggum tells me at the Munch Museum, "to show the world that Norwegians could be great artists." In the late 19th century, Edvard Grieg in music and Henrik Ibsen in drama were internationally celebrated Norwegians, their works performed all over Europe and America. In the 1890s, Munch became the third superstar in the Norwegian artistic firmament, and for that reason schoolchildren are being guided through the Munch Museum a hundred years later. Munch painted feelings, and everyone has feelings, says Eggum. "Children, even in kindergarten, respond directly to feelings. . . they can respond to jealousy, anxiety, sorrow, and love." But Thomas Hylland Eriksen, professor of anthropology in Oslo, tells me that Norwegian children, overexposed to Munch's work, even on television, ask "Why isn't anyone smiling?" Munch has become a matter of "national vanity," says Eriksen, important because he "makes Norway famous," a vehicle of nationalist self-advertisement, like the Lillehammer Winter Olympics of 1994.

Ironically, in the late 19th century, even as Munch was putting Norway on the artistic map, the Norwegians did not particularly like the flagrant modernism of his work. "The Norwegians hated his art," says Eggum flatly. One 19th-century newspaper wrote that "Edvard Munch is best served by having his pictures bypassed in silence," and another said they reflected only "bizarre madness, delirious moods, and feverish hallucinations." The technique of the young Munch was crudely dismissed by an artistic colleague, who told him, "You paint like a pig, Edvard." Boston College was able to obtain the loan of Munch's odd and magnificent Portrait of the Artist Aase Norregaard, a woman he painted more than once, because the Norwegian National Gallery kept the painting in storage in the basement. "I hate it," commented the curator in Oslo, and packed the picture off to Boston.

The conventional appreciation of Munch has always involved reservations about his perspective on women. In 1944, Time magazine put the label "misogynous" in his obituary, right after "highly neurotic." Munch's female icons have often inspired controversy, from the embracing Vampire to the ecstatic Madonna, both represented in lithographs in the Boston College exhibit. "He hated women," a Scandinavian colleague remarked at the opening, looking around at the work on the walls. Munch, however, thought that women hated him, once remarking: "They hate me because I concentrate on my work and stay unmarried."

To be sure, Munch's relationships with women did not turn out well. One of his early Norwegian affairs ended with the woman threatening to shoot herself, and then shooting off the painter's finger instead. The Boston College show, rescuing the dramatically imperious portrait of Aase Norregaard from basement storage in Oslo, addresses Munch's ambivalence about women in the context of fin de siecle culture. In his essay for the McMullen catalogue, Claude Cernuschi, fine arts professor and one of the BC curators, cites Freudian interest in the relation between sex and death, strikingly represented by Munch in Death and the Maiden, a nude woman making love to a skeleton. Stephen Schloesser, SJ, history professor and also a curator, emphasizes the contemporary preoccupation with female hysteria that Munch transmuted into rapture in a spirit of reverent mysticism.

Munch's lifelong exploration of human emotions inevitably brought him into the thicket of troubled misapprehension that bedeviled relations between the sexes in the 20th century, an era that finally achieved an historic recognition of feminist concerns. He witnessed the collapse of Victorian conventions, and his work in part reflects the traumatic experience of sexual uncertainty at the turn of the century.

In 1905, Norway achieved its national independence from Sweden. In 1911, the English journal The Fortnightly Review published an article about the newly independent country and about the art of Munch as a characteristically Norwegian phenomenon. "Over this land of mountains, forests, and sea hangs a depressing melancholy," the journal warned, preparing to introduce its readers to the mind of the artist by describing the landscape of Norway in the winter:

The inhabitants are entirely cut off from the world. There is ever the yellow light of the lamp, ever the same faces; the people go silently to and fro, they avoid one another, they hate themselves. . . . And under the depressing influence of the sobbing of the continual rain, and the black cover of the lead-like, murky sky, the sky that oppresses one, even within the house, the soul of the usually calm and intelligent Norwegian becomes unstrung.

Such was supposed to be the emotional landscape of Edvard Munch, a scenario of mental illness and moral decadence. "Satan, the god of the miserable and desperate, fixes his claws into the misguided soul," the critic wrote, "and it is in this atmosphere of fear and despair, under this terrible inclination towards evil, followed by contrition, that Edvard Munch has dreamed his gloomy pictures." Seen thus, Munch's work seemed almost dangerous in its possible consequences for the innocent viewer, unprepared for its satanic impact and psychologically susceptible to becoming unstrung. Perhaps our sense of the impact of art has been diminished since that earlier turn of the century. Arne Eggum suggests that people once would have said, "Don't go to the Munch exhibit, it will make you go insane," but today they'd only say, "Don't go, it's depressing."

The first major Munch exhibit in the United States opened in 1912, in a show that was sponsored by the American-Scandinavian Society in New York, intended partly to encourage Americans of Scandinavian descent to be proud of their cultural heritage. Munch, with his "gloomy pictures" and neurotic reputation, was then, as now, a problematic figure for rallying national sentiment. Perhaps non-Scandinavian Americans were more free to accept or reject Munch on his own terms. The New York Times saluted him in 1913 under the category "Masters of Hallucination," and declared that his best work offered "a genuine thrill." Americans were not always, however, so ready to enter into the satanic spirit of the work, and in 1950 when Boston hosted the first important posthumous American exhibit of Munch, Newsweek headlined its story "Melancholy Norwegian" and remarked in postwar perplexity: "These people seem tormented by the simple fact of being alive."

Edvard Munch: Psyche, Symbol, and Expression, the exhibit at Boston College, is the largest American show of Munch's work in a generation. It comes at the start of a new century that will surely develop its own critical perspective on the triumphs and outrages of modernism in the arts. In 2001, more than half a century after his death, we still preserve some personal connection to the age of Edvard Munch. Per Arneberg, the Norwegian shipping magnate whose exceptionally important collection forms the centerpiece of the Boston College exhibit, reminisced about Munch at the show's opening. "I have an experience that I think none of you have," said Arneberg, genially. "I have shaken the hand of Edvard Munch, and said to him, Hello, Mr. Munch." Arneberg's father was a friend of Edvard Munch and one of the architects of Oslo's Town Hall, on the waterfront of the fjord; the building, with its pseudo-Viking ornamentation, is famous as the site of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Arneberg's daughter, a Boston College undergraduate, appeared one day in the office of fine arts professor Nancy Netzer, the director of the McMullen Museum, and mentioned the Arneberg collection. Netzer, whose decade of enterprising directorship of the museum has repeatedly brought glory to Boston College, worked together with Arneberg and fine arts professor Jeffrey Howe, the principal curator, to obtain the Norwegian loans that make this Munch exhibit a landmark in the long history of Munch's relation to the American public. The team of curators also includes BC colleagues Scott T. Cummings, Katherine Nahum, Vanessa Rumble, and Crystal Tiala.

Munch never came to the United States himself, though at the end of his life America was on his mind as Norway's best hope of getting rid of Hitler. ("He may conquer England," Munch remarked, "but he'll never beat America.") Munch's uncompromisingly modernist work had been targeted by the Nazis in Germany in 1937, when Hitler condemned "degenerate art." After 1940 the Germans established a puppet regime in occupied Norway, under the leadership of Vidkun Quisling, whose name became an international byword for collaboration with the enemy. Munch contemptuously mocked Hitler as a house painter and would have nothing to do with the Quisling regime: "That Hitler, now, he must be crazy, don't you think? To let loose a war like this one. I understand he doesn't like my pictures. Of course, those who have painted up and down with broad brushes can't stand us who paint with the art size." Munch rejected the proposal of a big Nazi-sponsored Norwegian exhibition for his 80th birthday in 1943 (though there was an important show of his work in Chicago that year), and he was buried without national ceremony after his death in 1944.

Americans received the news of Munch's death in a broadcast picked up from Nazi Europe, some four months before D-Day. "The controlled Oslo radio said this afternoon that Edvard Munch, Norway's most distinguished painter, had died at the age of 80," reported the New York Times, describing his residence with its "workshops and storerooms filled with packing cases and pictures that he declined to sell." Time magazine's obituary for "Expressionism's Father" declared him a "legendary eccentric"--and certainly one of his eccentricities had been his reluctance to part with his paintings. In the 1930s a patron of the artist's was surprised to receive a sudden phone call: "This is Munch. I miss that painting I sold you and would like to borrow it for a while." It was thus that thousands of works were left to the city of Oslo at his death. "When you come to think of it, though, it's terrible that Oslo is to get my pictures," Munch remarked, with a sense of irony, for he had not forgotten that the critics there had hated him.

Munch's most passionate feelings for Oslo concerned the city's relation to the sea. Located at the innermost recess of the Oslo Fjord, the city extends from the waterfront upward. All of Munch's dramatized passions are set by the sea--Melancholy, Anxiety, even The Scream--though they would hardly be considered seascapes. The sea is everywhere in Munch, except perhaps in the Self-Portrait in Hell, which may be what makes it hell.

It is not always easy to recapture in modern Oslo the passionate intensity of Munch's relation to the landscape and seascape. You can, however, take the trolley up the slopes until, eventually, at the end of the line, you find yourself at an elevation where you can finally look out over the city to the fjord and to the sea. As the sun sets, there are hundreds of Norwegian children riding the trolley to that last stop, along with their sleds and skis, and when they reach the top, they all rush out and throw themselves upon the cleared slopes that continue for miles down into the city, where many get right back on the trolley going up. I had no sled and no skis, so I watched the last of the sun over the fjord and thought about the children in the Munch Museum, learning about human emotions through the Norwegian muse of insanity and anxiety. Everyone has feelings, I reminded myself, so everyone can respond to Munch. And in Norway everyone has skis.

Professor Eriksen suggests to me that one thing that his fellow Norwegians recognize in Munch is a vision of "the dark side of living in this part of the world." Long winters and limited sunlight, combined with a Protestant sense of sin and oppressive pangs of conscience, encourage the Scandinavians to see themselves as living in the climatic domain of depression and suicide. "Oh my God, the weather again!" says Ina Blom, professor of art history in Oslo, when we discuss this issue. She's impatient with what she sees as a hopeless Scandinavian compulsion to relate Munch to the annual snowfall. "It's a quick fix," she says, as if Munch is supposed to explain "all these depressed Scandinavians," to tell us "how depressed we all are." Like Ibsen, with suicide always imminent at the end of a drama, Munch is supposed to speak to the mental imbalance of Scandinavia.

Munch, however, though certainly psychologically tumultuous, lived to the age of 80 and died of natural causes. In 1891, he traveled to France, where Van Gogh had shot himself the year before. In Monte Carlo, on the Riviera, Munch lost his money gambling in the casino:

Later I went into a pissoir. Suddenly, an attendant entered and implored me not to commit suicide.

"Suicide?" I said. "I'm a painter and I haven't the slightest intention of committing suicide."

Perhaps this interlude in the pissoir sums up Munch's ironic artistic destiny: to be interpreted throughout his career and even posthumously as the Scandinavian apostle of ultimate psychic trauma, even when he was merely fulfilling the mundane missions of everyday existence.

"He's among the worst ones," the aging Munch once remarked uncollegially about a fellow Norwegian artist, "he keeps painting like a pedantic old maid." Ever unmarried, Munch became something of an old maid himself, but never pedantic. His Starry Night of the 1920s appears even more liberated in its brushwork and coloring than some of his masterpieces of the 1890s. The mystically explosive heavens in this violently swirling vision of the northern Norwegian sky are as much his own hallucinatory vision as the hell that he depicted at the turn of the century. Starry Night hangs in the last room of the Boston College exhibit. I find myself returning to one of the smaller paintings that hangs in the same room. It's the Bathing Boys, from 1902: three boys in the water, each breaking the surface, with the submerged portions of their bodies transformed both by a tinge of ghostly underwater green and an unearthly geometric distortion of the limbs. James Joyce might have witnessed a similar scene in the vicinity of the Martello Tower, and, in the bathing scene of Ulysses, depicted the same phenomenon of submergence, a young man moving "slowly frogwise his green legs in the deep jelly of the water."

Munch always was fascinated by the shoreline, and in the Bathing Boys he painted the demarcation of earth and water as seen through the prismatic depths of the sea itself, dividing the background into the murky brown bottom, glinting with an ocherous hint of hell, and the paradise of the deeply purple sea. There is something both alluring and foreboding about this swimming scene--a northern chill perhaps--and you might hesitate to follow the boys into those waters, which exercise such a peculiar distortion upon their juvenile forms. Any nostalgia for childhood becomes uncomfortable as Munch seems to hint at the greater and inevitable distortions that age and time will exercise upon our bodies and psyches. The oldest of the boys is not swimming, but stands closest to us, only his legs submerged, at the edge of adolescence, and I felt a momentary shudder of apprehension at the thought that if he were to turn his naked form toward us, and look us in the eye, we would recognize him as the protagonist of Self-Portrait in Hell.

On one occasion Munch painted a pair of young boys, who eventually got tired of sitting still for the artist, and walked away. Munch, however, with his eyes fixed upon the canvas, was unaware of their disappearance, and continued to recite a patter of approval addressed to the boys, whom he saw clearly in his head: "You're good boys to stand there as nicely as you do." Munch completed the work without noticing that the models were no longer present. As a master of hallucinations, Munch still speaks to us at the beginning of a new century, because so many of the emotional dramas that unfolded in his mind--Melancholy, Despair, Attraction, Separation--offer uncanny reflections of our own fantasies and fears. Though we have never posed for Munch, or even shaken his hand, we can recognize ourselves even in the works that pass as self-portraits.

Larry Wolff is a professor of history at Boston College. He has previously written for BCM on the artist Caravaggio (Winter 1999). His book Venice and the Slavs will be published this year by Stanford University Press.

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