- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

EDVARD MUNCH: BEHIND THE SCREAM

By Sue Prideaux

Yale University Press, $35, 391 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY GWEN GIBSON

Edvard Munch, Norway’s most famous artist, chronicled his reactions to life with such hauntingly memorable paintings as “The Scream,” “The Sick Child,” “Madonna,” “The Vampire” and hundreds of other extraordinary works. Now art historian Sue Prideaux has chronicled the turbulent life of the genius behind these paintings in a new and absorbing biography.

In “Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream,” Ms. Prideaux gives us rare and intimate insights into Munch’s troubled childhood; his turbulent love affairs; his struggles with poverty, depression and alcoholism; his friendships with the famous and the infamous, and his strange, protective attitude toward his “children,” as he called his paintings.

Munch wanted the body of his work “to be his shadow, an evolving and unfinished confessional diary …” Ms. Prideaux writes in a foreward. “The pictures are life-led; and it is the life that drives this book.”

As Munch’s biographer, Ms. Prideaux had three distinct advantages. She is part Norwegian, speaks the language fluently and is the great niece of the late philanthropist Thomas Olsen who collected Munch’s works and saved many of his paintings when the Nazis branded them degenerate.

Her connections and unrelenting research netted the biographer unprecedented access to thousands of Munch’s dairies, letters and other papers plus writings from his family, colleagues, critics, admirers, doctors and lovers. She quotes liberally from all.

In one fascinating passage, Ms. Prideaux describes the scene where Munch was inspired to paint “The Scream,” his symbol of world anguish. It was sunset at a high place in Ekeberg overlooking Kristiania?now Oslo. The city’s main slaughterhouse was here and so was the asylum where Munch’s sister Laura was incarcerated.

“I went along the road with two friends,” Munch wrote in memoirs quoted by Prideaux. “Suddenly the sky became blood … Clouds over the fjord dripped reeking blood. My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound on my breast. I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.”

Munch was born in Loten, near Norway’s capital, in 1863 into a distinguished but impoverished family. His father, Christian Munch, was a military doctor. His uncle, P.A. Munch, a brilliant scholar, was known as the father of Norwegian history.

Munch’s mother, Laura Cathrine, died at age 30 of tuberculosis, after giving birth to five children. At their mother’s death, Sophie was six, Edward five, Peter Andreas three, Laura two and Inger 11 months.

Sophie and Edvard drew particularly close to their mother as she dwindled into death and later developed “an exclusive and devoted bond,” according to Ms. Prideaux. Sophie’s death from tuberculosis at age 15 “was a blow from which Edvard never fully recovered,” she writes. “He kept the chair she had died in all his life. You can see it today in the Munch Museum.”

Munch’s painting “The Sick Child,” recalling Sophie’s fatal illness, became known as the first expressionist masterpiece. Munch called it “the fulcrum on which his art turned.”

Munch presented Ms. Prideaux with some formidable difficulties. For one thing, he had a bewildering way of naming and dating his works. “Needing to keep his children about him, he would add a few strokes to a work that had been standing around a long time, only dating it when he finished,” she says. “On other occasions he would give a picture a date going back 10 to 15 years.”

Ms. Prideaux sorts out Munch’s works and his difficult life with a scholar’s eye for history and a novelist’s eye for anecdotes. She describes, for example, the time when Munch, then only seven, took a piece of coal from the fireplace in his home and drew his first major composition on the floorboards—a procession of blind men which he had just witnessed.

“This was probably the first moment that anybody realized the extent of Edvard’s artistic gift,” she writes.

She also describes Munch’s loss of virginity in the woods to Millie Thaulow, wife of a captain in the medical corps, and his tumultous affair with Tulla Larsen which climaxed in a shooting that left Munch’s left hand shattered by a bullet. Munch recalls the scene in his painting “Death of Marat,” depicting himself as a bloodied, sacrificed Christ lying on a bed while Tulla stands nude, facing the viewer, rigid as a statue. Munch had “an enormous number of mistresses,” Ms. Prideaux writes. But if they got too close “he would find an excuse to retire lest the price of intimacy be paid at the expense of his mistress, art.”

The artist whose quest “was to touch the universal nerve in art” lived in poverty for years before becoming an award-winning national hero. His early exhibits in France, Germany and Norway received poor review. Traveling endlessly, he lived in shabby hotels and run-down boarding houses and constantly borrowed money or pawned paintings to survive. He once traded a prized painting, “Music on Karl Johan,” with a shoemaker for a new pair of boots, Prideauz tells us.

Munch first became a celebrity in Germany when the inclusion of his works caused the closing of the Verein Berliner Kunstler exhibition of 1892. Many successful exhibitions followed and Norway finally honored Munch in 1908 with the Order of St. Olav (First Class).

The artist was in a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen at the time, for treatment of a nervous breakdown brought on by his excessive drinking.

“The nurses all admired my lovely brooch,” Munch wrote of his award. “As regards that honour, I never set much store by such things. But in this case I feel that it is as if a hand is reaching out from my home …”

Munch went home to Norway in the spring of 1909 to enjoy fame, enormous wealth and the companionship of young models who posed for him at his country estate at Ekely, outside Oslo.

His ideal life was shattered when the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 and threatened to confiscate his paintings, but he and his friends successfully hid them from the occupying troops.

Munch died in 1944 at age 80, just before the Nazis were booted from his homeland. He bequeathed his works to Norway, an enormous gift that included 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings, 15,391 prints and 378 lithographs. Among these were the paintings in his famous “Frieze of Life.”

The 20 core paintings in “The Frieze” remained constant, Ms. Prideaux says, but Munch constantly added new “children” as he underwent new experiences.

“To imagine ‘The Frieze’ as an unchanging sequence of paintings is as great a mistake as to imagine that this biography can possibly hold more than a fraction of the complex truths of Munch’s life,” Ms. Prideaux writes. .

Gwen Gibson is a Washington writer.

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