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Edvard Munch by Himself: Royal Academy of Arts

Feature: James Haddrell

FEW ARTISTS have documented their own life as rigorously as the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.

From the time he enrolled at the Royal School of Drawing in Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1881 to the time of his death in 1944 he constantly painted himself, but with the exception of his very earliest works, painted during his short-lived membership of the Naturalist movement, Munch’s portraits are far more than exercises in painting from life – they are paintings of the experience of life.

The three self-portraits that open the exhibition, painted between 1882 and 1886, serve to illustrate the artist’s early rejection of naturalism. While the first concentrates on the surface of the painter’s face, seen as a solid form in three-quarter profile, by the third portrait Munch has taken to scratching at the surface of the paint with the sharp end of the brush, hacking away at his image as life has hacked away at him.

Born in 1863, Munch lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was just 5 and his sister Sophie nine years later.

In 1889, with the psychological damage he had already suffered becoming visible in his work, Munch wrote, “no longer shall interiors be painted with people reading and women knitting. There shall be living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love” – a manifesto, if ever there was one, for the prolific career that was to come.

The first half of the Royal Academy’s exhibition reveals the first 25 years or so of Munch’s self-portraiture as a dramatic, often theatrical progression towards complete psychological breakdown.

In 1895, the artist portrays himself in the large scale Self Portrait With Cigarette, a naturalist depiction mysteriously lit from below and surrounded by black, brooding, oppressive shadows. For the turn of the century’s Golgotha, the artist is depicted as a naked, crucified Christ figure, pitilessly mocked by the crowds, before ending up in 1903’s Self Portrait In Hell.

The early years of the 20th Century also saw Munch obsessing over the violent ending to his relationship with girlfriend, Tulla Larsen. When Larsen threatened to commit suicide in response to Munch’s refusal to marry, the artist shot himself in the hand.

The resulting Operating Table of 1903, in which the painter is laid naked on a hospital operating table while a crowd of observers look on, shows the deeply self-pitying view that Munch had of the whole affair. The physical injury may have been limited to a finger of his left hand, but psychologically Munch was being dissected for the world to express their contempt.


In the years that followed, his relationship with Larsen was to feature again and again. The violent Death Of Marat series casts him as the ultimate victim - the French revolutionary murdered by a woman – with red paint smeared onto the canvas as if Munch is literally painting in his own blood.

In 1908, at the height of his tortured working and reworking of this event, Munch suffered a nervous breakdown, and in 1909 returned home to Norway.

Whilst the post-recovery self-portraits can certainly not be categorised as all happy, the dramatic visions of hell, of vampires, laughing crowds and female murderers have become a thing of the past.

The 1915 Self Portrait: Nude With Raised Arm shows Munch looking up towards the sun, his palette light and pastel dominated, the artist yearning for absolution from his past. The fires of hell have been replaced by the rays of the sun, and whilst many of Munch’s anxieties are still present their depiction has an older, wiser quality.

In Self Portrait In Bergen, painted while in Bergen for a major exhibition of his work, Munch sits on a balcony with his head averted from the bustling crowds below. He may still see himself as an outsider, and suffer the weight of his own loneliness, but he is no longer surrounded by the probing, mocking crowds of his earlier paintings – the world now simply goes by without him.

It is the lack of Munch’s earlier melodrama that makes the end of the Royal Academy’s exhibition the most affecting. In Self Portrait: The Night Wanderer an insomniac Munch confronts himself, nervous and hesitant in the darkness.

In Self Portrait Between Clock and Bed, one of the final paintings in the exhibition, Munch stands hunched between a grandfather clock without hands, a timepiece with no time left, and the bed in which so many of us eventually die. The victim of fire and brimstone, of violence and crucifixion has become the victim of illness, of loneliness, of old-age.

The late works are no longer a theatrical performance, a melodramatic expression of feeling; they have come to constitute a genuine confession of that human frailty from which we all suffer – and therefore an expression of emotion in which it is all too easy to share.

Early in his career, commenting on the tragedy that had beset his early life, Munch remarked that ‘illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle’.

We may not all feel the effects of madness, or the ominous presence of black angels, but we all age and we all ultimately die.

For that reason Munch’s final works, full of frustration, frailty and the acceptance of his own mortality, provide the highest point in his quest to portray ‘people who breathe and feel and suffer and love’, for in painting the experience of his own fading life with so much truth, he is really painting us all.

Edvard Munch by Himself
Until 11 December 2005
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD. Tel: 020 7300 8000;
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £8.00; various concessions

Our picture shows Edvard Munch
Self-portrait. The Night Wanderer, 1923-24. Munch museet, Oslo

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