Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Luminous shards

Edvard Munch, one of Norway’s most famous sons, and the painter of one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Scream, died 80 years ago today. His so-called ‘private journals’ were published a decade or so ago by the University of Wisconsin Press. The book's editor has described the text as full of ‘luminous shards’ but, nevertheless, this work is not a journal/diary but a book of poetry. 

Munch was born in 1863, in Loten, Norway, though the family soon moved to Oslo (then called Christiania and renamed to Kristiania in 1877). His childhood was much affected by the ill health of those around him: his mother died from tuberculosis when he was just five, and some years later his sister also died from the same disease; moreover his father, a doctor, suffered from mental illness. 

Munch enrolled in a technical college in 1879 to study engineering but soon left to take up painting. From 1881, he studied at the Royal School of Art and Design, where he was exposed to a bohemian lifestyle, a stark contrast to his Lutheran upbringing. In 1883, he took part in his first public exhibition. According to Wikipedia, a full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, a notorious bohemian-about-town, earned some scathing criticism: ‘It is impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.’

During visits to Paris in the late 1880s, he was exposed to Post-Impressionism styles; and in the 1890s he involved himself with the Symbolist movement in Berlin, often spending his winters in the city. His most famous painting - The Scream - is said to encapsulate the existential angst and despair that were central to his oeuvre. Throughout his life, he faced numerous personal challenges, including alcoholism and, in 1908, a nervous breakdown, which led him to seek therapy and adopt a more balanced lifestyle. 

Munch’s later years were marked by increasing recognition and numerous exhibitions, particularly in Germany, where he had a significant impact on the development of German Expressionism. Although he had several relationships with women, none seems to have lasted more than a few years. He died on 23 January 1944, leaving more than 20,000 works to the City of Oslo. See Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the official Munch website for more information.

There are tantalising references (in biographies) to diaries kept by Munch, especially when he was younger - see, for example, Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies by Arne Eggum (available to view at Internet Archive). However, the only published diary/journal that I can find is The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, as edited and translated by J. Gill Holland (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). This can be sampled at Googlebooks.

The blurb gives some information about the book’s text: ‘. . . Munch considered himself a writer as well as a painter. [In Paris and Berlin . . .] he evolved a highly personal style in paintings and works on paper. And in diaries that he kept for decades, he also experimented with reminiscence, fiction, prose portraits, philosophical speculations, and surrealism. [. . .] The journal entries in this volume span the period from the 1880s, when Munch was in his twenties, until the 1930s, reflecting the changes in his life and his work. [. . .] Though excerpts from these diaries have been previously published elsewhere, no translation has captured the real passion and poetry of Munch’s voice. This translation lets Munch speak for himself and evokes the primal passion of his diaries.’

And here is a helpful paragraph from Holland’s introduction: ‘What general claims can be made for these pages from Munch’s journals? It is clear that passages in the journals are imaginary. It should also be obvious that a range of moods and tones colors his entries. His journals were for decades a laboratory in which he recorded scenes, visions, stories, and meditations. I have not tried to follow any chronological order in organizing the sections. The entries are seldom dated; Munch’s memory often reached far back into the past. Perhaps these passages should be read not as biographical items strung along a time line but instead like William Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” magical moments to which the English poet returned for four decades but that were never published in his lifetime. Munch’s journal entries “can be appreciated as luminous shards picked from the mountain of colors lying outside the glasscutter’s workshop” ’.

That said, the work is better described as a collection of poetry than a journal, and has no dated entries. Here for example is one famous extract - describing how he came to paint The Scream

One evening I was walking
out on a hilly path
near Kristiania —
with two
comrades. It
was a time when life
had ripped my
soul open.
The sun was going down—had
dipped in flames below the horizon.
It was like
a flaming sword
of blood slicing through
the concave of heaven.
The sky was like
blood — sliced with
strips of fire
— the hills turned
deep blue
the fjord — cut in
cold blue, yellow, and
red colors —

The exploding
bloody red — on
the path and hand railing
—my friends turned
glaring yellow white—
—I felt
a great scream
— and I heard,
yes, a great
scream —
the colors in
nature — broke
the lines of nature
— the lines and colors
vibrated with motion
—these oscillations of life
brought not only
my eye into oscillations,
it brought also my
ears into oscillations —
so I actually heard
a scream—
I painted
the picture Scream then.

No comments: