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Edvard Munch: 1863 - 1944

Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863, near Loyten in southern Norway. His mother died when he was five and his elder sister when he was 14; he himself was a sickly child, and the themes of sickness and death appear frequently in his work. His father, too, was drastically affected by the mother's death, becoming subject to religious mania and varying between jocularity and insane violence.

At the age of 17 Munch entered the Oslo School of Art and Handicraft. In 1882, after two years there, he joined a group of young artists in a studio in a building where Christian Krohg, a realist painter influenced by Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, also worked. Although Munch's early style reflects that of Krohg, he achieved by the mid 1880's a freer and subtler handling of color and an approach to his subject unlike that of any Norwegian contemporary. The intellectual atmosphere of Oslo in the 1880's, in particular the ideas of Ibsen and Bjornson, made a strong impact on him. Society was considered an entity to be fought and art a social weapon with which to fight it. In the first versions of paintings such as The Day After and Puberty, both of 1886, Munch used realistic observation to express social themes.

In the late 1880's Norway began to be aware of French Impressionism. In 1885 Munch had visited Paris for a few weeks. Four years afterwards he won a scholarship to Paris and was abroad until 1892. Meanwhile radical changes occurred in his style. He worked for three months at Leon Bonnat's studio in Paris, then independently. He visited the Riviera, Italy, and Germany. He saw paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in Theo van Gogh's Paris gallery. The first version of The Yellow Boat, 1891, contains patterns reminiscent of Gauguin. At the same time its movement into space is much stronger than anything in Gauguin.

In 1892, Munch was invited to exhibit in Berlin. This was both a key point in his own career and a significant event for Germany. His paintings caused such an outcry that the exhibition was closed in Berlin, but it went to Breslau, Dresden, and Munich, as well as Copenhagen, and pointed the direction of German Expressionism for the next few decades.

Munch had already conceived the idea of painting pictures in a cycle that he eventually called the Frieze of Life. Although it was never finished it occupied much of his energy. subject matter was always important to him, and until the end of the century he was experimenting with and searching for motifs for the Frieze of Life. from 1892 to 1908 he returned regularly to Norway every summer. He became a friend of August Strindberg, much of whose subjective and abstract thinking he absorbed. For example the statement; "in the painter and the playwright there is a parallel preoccupation with the conflict between the sexes and other sexual problems; there is the same sense of the powerlessness of the individual in the face of love and death." To express his own experience of the dilemma of love and its consequences, Munch used a variety of styles, mediums, and motifs, with varying degrees of symbolism.

In Paris again in 1896, he concentrated on the woodcut. In this medium he made some technical innovations. For example, he was the first to make use of the wood grain and to allow his material to help dictate the form: he also evolved a new method of cutting up the blocks. Influenced by Gauguin and by Japanese prints, these woodcuts achieved a consistency of style not found in other aspects of his work.

In the early years of the 20th century Munch was recognized in Norway and achieved financial security. In 1908 in Copenhagen he suffered a nervous collapse as a result of heavy drinking and an unhappy love affair, and entered a sanatorium. However, he continued his work there, holding a successful exhibition in Oslo. He returned to Norway in 1909 and took part the following year in a competition for decorations for Oslo University. In 1914 the commission was finally granted him. In its execution he used a simple, formal language, with many motifs close to popular visual tradition. At the Cologne Sonderbund, where his was invited to show in 1912, he was allotted, like Picasso, a whole room for his pictures.

By now nature had begun to assume a new importance for Munch. From 1910 to 1912, inspired possibly by the cinema, he experimented with the movement of figures in space. In the work of his last ten years he summed up his life's experience. He was obsessed both with the days of his youth and with the irony of old age; the latter is expressed in his Between the Clock and The Bed, Self-portrait, 1940. He died in January 1944, having lived to see his paintings, once highly esteemed in Germany, included in the 1935 Nazi exhibition in Munich of "degenerate" art.

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