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Archive for September 9th, 2019

How is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

The Trigger

Recently, an ITV documentary on the painter Edvard Munch highlighted the depth of my ignorance of the full extent of his achievements.

Until I saw the programme, I only knew of one painting by him. There are no prizes for guessing which painting I mean, and I am not going to insult anyone by spelling it out now.

The programme thrust powerful painting after powerful painting into my line of sight. How on earth, given my supposed interest in art and my undoubted knowledge of his existence, could I have failed for so long to discover his true value as an artist? We’ll come onto his failings as a human being soon enough: though they caused him great suffering, they helped fuel the intense creativity of his art.

My initial reaction, predictably, was to buy a book about him. Being unsure how this would all turn out, I chose cheaply and secured a copy of Ulrich Bischoff’s Munch for a mere £10.

It was well worth the investment. It contained some impactful reproductions of a few of his key paintings. What was lacking was an insightful account of the man.

I couldn’t help my attention being grabbed by coincidences of dates: he was born in 1863, the year Bahá’u’lláh declared his mission, and died in 1944, the anniversary of the Declaration of the Báb. These are of no real significance, but they augmented my interest none the less. His life spanned a period of great significance to me, including as it did the same two wars that deeply affected my parents and ending the year after I was born. That, as we shall see, he was affected all his life by the death of a sister, simply added to the magnetic attraction of his life to me. My childhood was overshadowed by the continuing grief of my parents for my sister, Mary, who had died four years before I was born. I wrote several poems on the subject.

I am flagging all that up in case it indicates a certain lack of objectivity in what is to follow.

There were a few scattered insights in Bischoff’s book, it’s true. For example, (page 8) he quotes Munch explaining the importance of apparently negative experiences in giving him a sense of direction: ‘Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder.’ He also had early experiences of death, far more intense than my own, who only knew of one death during my childhood, though it was a key one. He wrote (page 36): ‘I lead my life in the company of the dead.’ These included his mother, who died when he was five, and his sister, Sophie, who died when he was 15.

Bischoff did illuminate aspects of Munch’s art as well.

The Storm scanned from Bischoff’s book (Taschen)

He repeatedly uses a trope, of which I later learnt the full importance in understanding Munch (page 38). In his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’ We’ll hear a lot more of the soul in a moment, with its significance extending beyond a relationship with landscape.

An earlier note I made, before even seeing the programme, prepared me for this. From some now unknown source I captured this: ‘He once wrote: “Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul.”

Munch, the man

I still can’t track down where I heard about Sue Prideaux’s biography of Munch. I noted it at the back of my pocketbook but I can’t find it anywhere in Bischoff’s book. Anyway, on a trip to Cardiff one weekend, I popped into Waterstones and there it was. I had no way of knowing, as I dithered about buying it, what an enthralling 328-page journey into another human being’s mind it would take me on.

Her stimulating focus on his mind and the insights his art gives us into the human condition is unfailing throughout the book. As early as page 11, discussing the painting Evening on Karl Johann Street, she writes, ‘faces shorthanded into near-skulls expressing the commonality of human loneliness that can never be shared . . .’

Evening on Karl Johan Street (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

The origins of this pervasive mood were rooted in his youth and childhood (page 32):

Sophie’s death was a blow from which Edvard never fully recovered. A desolate longing for her remained all his life; he had lost his mother all over again. God had broken his promise.… the inutility of God and the inadequacy of Papa had been exposed in the face of the grim injustice of sickness and death.

This is again something that resonates with me: though my early experiences of hospitalisation were less traumatic they similarly dented my faith in God and in my parents.

The stress of his mother’s slow death from tuberculosis made his father prone to rages which led to beatings. The pressure was unremitting on Munch (page 37):

‘Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle,’ Edvard had written.

The disadvantages of this are all too obvious. There was a more positive side in the insights this darkness gave him (page 81-83):

Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

In addition, he developed, as he described it (page 106):

‘. . . a sensitivity to the metaphysical, to the paranormal influences to which we are all subject, even in this materialistic century.’

His position on this may have been somewhat more complex and inconsistent than this quote suggests, given that later (page 164) Prideaux writes, ‘He remained unable to believe in anything transcendental, and that included magic powers.’ I feel her summary at the end of the book probably defines his metaphysics and morality best (page 326-27):

[Munch was]: an implacable opponent of all –isms . . . [Central to the lives] of Munch’s tragic generation, had been the loss of meaning inflicted by the death of God. . . . Munch, too, had been one of the enfants du siècle who trod the narrow roof-ridge of disillusion, solipsism, spiritual disintegration and paralysing moral inertia, until the vision had come to him in Saint-Cloud. He, too, would have crashed down into the abyss of despair had it not been for his absolute need for some sort of religious faith. For Edvard Munch, just as for his father, it was impossible that God should die. The faith built upon the Saint-Cloud vision prevented the plunge into the abyss. Thereafter, his faith and his art together with his strong sense of moral responsibility towards his family were the icons clasped to his chest as, from time to time, he so nearly fell.

There is more to say but it can wait until next time.

The Sick Child (scanned from the Taschen edition)

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