Edvard Munch paintings

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:39

Edvard Munch paintings

Written by Dorothy Rowe and published in Hildon Magazine (Summer/Autumn 2005)

The publication of this article has been timed to coincide with a major exhibition of Edvard Munch’s paintings at London’s Royal Academy
(October - December 2005)

Edvard Munch -
his pictures were a means of understanding himself

Often the swirl of emotions and thoughts inside us is hard to bear. We feel confused, uncertain, fearful that we are about to be overwhelmed by chaos or lose all control of ourselves. One way of dealing with this is to create some account of what is happening to us. We may talk to someone, or keep a diary, or turn our experience into a story, a poem, a play, a song or a picture. Taking what is inside us and putting it outside helps us manage, understand and contain our experience.

Turning our experience into some artistic form is a defence, a way of holding ourselves together when we feel we are falling apart. Other people may find what we produce incomprehensible, or banal, or, at best, an explanation for our behaviour. What we produce is not art.

However, if we are skilled, what we produce may be art, and we can produce a work that vividly encapsulates our experience. If we are very skilled, what we produce may be good art, but, while what we produce is no more than an account of what we are experiencing, it is not great art.

In great art, the artist has taken his experience and turned it into an image that has a universal meaning, which speaks about and to us all. Like the poet Rilke’s “imperturbable cathedral carvers”, the artist has “transposed themselves into the constant stone” and turned image into “nothing but image”.

Munch was a good artist but not a great artist. Unlike many artists, he painted self-portraits throughout his life. They are all about himself and his experiences, unlike Rembrandt’s, which ponder upon how life shapes us all. Nevertheless, Munch’s self-portraits are important because they show the internal struggles of a man who in his childhood encountered sickness, despair, death and loss, but who was not given a means of making sense of these in a way which allowed him to find the courage and hope necessary to face life. Instead, he was presented with punitive Lutheranism, stressing judgement, damnation and hell, and teaching him to see himself as a worthless person. Munch was only five when his mother died of tuberculosis; he probably blamed himself for her death. When he was 14, his eldest sister also died of tuberculosis. “Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle,” Munch wrote.

To understand the effects of such a childhood we need to understand the prime importance to all of us of our sense of being a person. To be able to live comfortably with ourselves, we need to feel that we can be the person we know ourselves to be, that other people accept and value us as the person we know ourselves to be, that we have a fairly accurate knowledge of the world we live in, that we can predict fairly accurately what the future will bring, and that we shall be able to deal effectively with whatever we encounter. We need to feel that our life has significance, and that when we die we leave something of importance behind.

Whenever we encounter a situation where we cannot be the person we know ourselves to be, when other people refuse to accept us as we are, when we greatly misjudge the world and fail to predict events, when we feel that we are being overwhelmed by events, we feel that we are shattering, crumbling, disappearing. Our fear of annihilation is worse than the fear of death. With death, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that some important part of us - our soul, our spirit, our children, our work - will continue, but when we face annihilation, we feel that we shall disappear like a raindrop vanishing into the ocean, never to have existed. We are utterly terrified. Every person experiences the fear of annihilation many times in his life. This is why Munch’s picture of this universal experience, The Scream, is so popular.

For some people, what most threatens their sense of being a person is the fear of being rejected and abandoned by everybody. Henri Matisse was one such person. For others, the situation that threatens them the most is where they feel that they will lose control of themselves and the world and will fall through infinite, bottomless space. Munch said “My life has been a battle just to keep myself upright. My path has led me along the edge of a precipice, a bottomless pit… From time to time I’ve tried to get away from the path, thrown myself into the throng of life among people. But every time I have had to go back to the path along the cliff top. It is my way, which I must follow till I plunge into the depths.” The railing that bisects his pictures Despair and The Scream is the edge of that precipice.

Munch would have disappeared over that precipice into oblivion had he not painted. But the recognition his talent brought him gave him a modicum of self-confidence. This enabled him to arrive at an understanding of himself from which he could construct a way of living that kept him safe. Munch appreciated the role of this. “I would not cast off my illness, for there is much in my art that I owe to it,” he wrote. His pictures were for him a means of understanding himself. Unfortunately he never escaped

the ancient curse of poets
Being sorry for themselves instead
of saying,
Forever passing judgement
on their feeling
Instead of shaping it…

Requiem for Wolf Graf von Kalckreuth,
Rainer Maria Rilke

Nevertheless, Munch’s paintings have enabled a great many people with lives similar to his to turn their experiences into a painting, and from that learn how to manage, understand and contain them. Art therapy produces many minor Munchs.

Matisse changed how we all see the world. Munch changed how we see the extremes of pain and sorrow.


Psychologist Dorothy Rowe is a world-renowned authority on depression. She is the author of Beyond Fear (HarperCollins) and Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison (Routledge).