Born in 1863, Edvard Munch had a melancholy childhood in what was then Christiania (Oslo). His early years were overshadowed by the early deaths of both his mother and a sister from tuberculosis, as well as the fierce Christian piety of his father. After some early works, including several self-portraits, he went on to study in Paris, a city he returned to again and again, and where he fell (fleetingly) under the sway of the Impressionists in general and Gauguin in particular, responding to the French painter’s simplified forms and non-naturalistic colours. In 1892 Munch moved to Berlin, where his style developed and he produced some of his best and most famous work, though his first exhibition there was considered so outrageous it was closed after only a week – his painting was, a critic opined, “an insult to art”: his recurrent themes, notably jealousy, sickness, alienation and the awakening of sexual desire, all of which he had extrapolated from his childhood, were simply too much for his early audience. Nevertheless, despite the initial criticism, Munch’s work was subsequently exhibited in many of the leading galleries of the day.
Generally considered the initiator of the Expressionist movement, Munch wandered Europe, painting and exhibiting prolifically. Meanwhile overwork, drink and problematic love affairs were fuelling an instability that culminated, in 1908, in a nervous breakdown. Munch spent six months in a Copenhagen clinic, after which his health improved greatly, and though his paintings lost the hysterical edge characteristic of his most celebrated work he never dismissed the importance of his mental frailness to his art, writing, for example, “I would not cast off my illness, for there is much in my art that I owe to it.”
Munch returned to Norway in 1909 and was based there until his death in 1944. He wasn’t, however, a popular figure in his homeland despite – or perhaps because of – his high international profile and he was regularly criticized in the press for all manner of alleged faults, from miserliness to artistic arrogance. Neither was his posthumous reputation enhanced by the state funeral organized for him by the occupying Germans, his coffin paraded up Karl Johans gate in a cortege of guns, eagles and swastikas. To be fair, Munch had certainly not wanted a fascist funeral and neither was he sympathetic to the Germans, who he feared would end up confiscating his paintings and burning them as “degenerate” art – as they nearly did.