Head and collar self portrait of Edvard Munch against a black background

Who was Edvard Munch?

Publication date: 8 January 2019

In our upcoming spring exhibition, we lift the veil on one of the most remarkable artists and printmakers of a generation – the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch. He was the creator of art’s most iconic face – but who was the artist behind The Scream?

Who was Edvard Munch?

Born in 1863 in Kristiania (modern day Oslo), Norway, Edvard Munch is one of the pioneers of modern art, best known for his arresting work, The Scream. Despite creating one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, surprisingly, the man behind the icon isn’t as well known as contemporaries such as Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or Paul Gauguin.

Ahead of the largest exhibition of his prints to be shown in the UK for nearly 50 years, find out more about the life and works of this ground-breaking artist...

Who was the man behind The Scream?

A non-conformist

Munch pursued an unconventional lifestyle for his time – in his hometown of Kristiania, the Lutheran church controlled almost every aspect of life in a deeply conservative society. Munch longed to escape. He reacted against his strict upbringing, mixing instead with a group of bohemian writers and artists who sought to expose the anxiety and hypocrisy beneath society’s ordered surface, including a fear of sexuality and its consequences. Munch formed passionate and tumultuous relationships, which provided artistic inspiration and an emotional intensity to his work that would shape his innovative prints.

A woman with long red hair presses her lips against the neck of a man who is bent over in front of her
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Vampire II. Colour lithograph and woodcut, 1895/1902. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on deposit at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway.

Painter or printmaker?

During the first ten years of his career Munch concentrated on painting, which he is primarily known for today, before starting to produce innovative prints in around 1894. His remarkable colour lithographs and unusual 'jigsaw' style woodcuts, were quickly recognised by a sophisticated print collectors’ market and effectively established his fame and international reputation as an artist.

A man and a woman rest their heads against each others so their cheeks are touching
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Head by Head. Colour woodcut, 1905. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

A subversive bohemian

Munch exchanged ideas with a radical group of bohemian writers, poets and artists in Kristiania, who openly criticised society and advocated free love. In his many visits to Paris and Berlin, Munch was attracted to similar companions, whose work pushed against the boundaries of art, literature and philosophy.

A group of people in a smokey bar, some are smoking or drinking alcohol
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Kristiania Bohemians II. Woodcut, 1895. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

The artist was also strongly influenced by theatre. Munch felt a particular affinity with the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s plays, which shocked bourgeois society with their uncompromising analysis of social and moral conventions by addressing adultery, hypocrisy, syphilis and madness – themes Munch also sought to represent.

The captivating allure of this red-haired figure conveys many of Munch's fears about the power of women. In real life, Munch's bohemian love affairs were frequent and beset with difficulty – he was attracted to women, but was unable to commit himself to anybody. Shockingly his affair with Tulla Larsen ended in a shooting incident which required surgery to remove a bullet from his finger!

A woman with very long red hair and green eyes, naked and wearing a small crucifix
Edvard Munch, Woman with red hair and green eyes: Sin, colour lithograph, 1902. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

A restless traveller

By the late 19th century the growing rail network made travel increasingly fast and efficient. As Europe continued to industrialise in the early 20th century, Munch took advantage of developments in technology to travel widely across Europe and immerse himself in the artistic and bohemian circles of both Paris and Berlin. This presented exciting new opportunities for Munch to immerse himself in the life and culture of these cities. Throughout his life, he left Norway to arrange exhibitions of his work and mix with an international circle of artists and intellectuals.

Edvard Munch sitting on a wooden trunk in his studio. Behind him are a number of paintings.
Edvard Munch on the trunk in his studio, 1902. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

A pioneer in the expression of the human experience

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder.

- Edvard Munch

Lithograph of open-mouthed figure, hands held up to head
Edvard Munch, The Scream. Lithograph, 1895. Private collection, Norway. CC BY 4 The Munch Museum.

From a young age Munch was preoccupied with death and suffering, following the death of his mother and sister as a child – an anxiety which plagued him throughout his life and shaped his work. His art showed the fragility and extremes of the human experience – escalating from love to loss and tenderness to jealousy.

These were themes that Munch would continually return to - he saw works on certain themes as his ‘children’ – and Munch revisited a series of haunting images about love, jealousy, anxiety and death, which he referred to as 'the frieze of life'. The artworks were not originally conceived as a single body of work, but developed into one as Munch gradually expanded his ideas.

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death.

- Edvard Munch

A man and a woman standing with their backs to us staring at the landscape
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Lonely Ones. Colour woodcut, 1899. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

A radical artist

The raw emotion in Munch's prints reflect many of the anxieties and hotly debated issues of the time, but his art still resonates powerfully in today's world.

Munch was stimulated by his encounters with Bohemian circles of artists and writers in Kristiania and Berlin. He defied convention, developing a new visual language that radically departed from the slick society portraits and grand Scandinavian landscapes that were in vogue.

We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

- Edvard Munch

Feeling the need to break with tradition and move away from beautifully dressed figures set in detailed interiors, he presented the world as he experienced it. Munch's prints reflect the tension generated by rapid urbanisation and the moral dilemmas of a changing world, as well as the scientific and medical advances that were being made. His use of rough texture, unusual colour combinations and controversial subject matter resonated with shifting attitudes – and mark him out as one of the first truly 'modern' artists.

Top half of naked woman, framed in red border, small figure in bottom left
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Madonna. Lithograph, 1895/1902. (CC) BY 4 The Munch Museum.

Edvard Munch: love and angst was at the Museum from 11 April to 21 July 2019.

Supported by AKO Foundation.

In collaboration with the Munch Museum, Oslo.