“Munch was chiefly concerned with his own existential drama: ‘My art’, he declared, ‘is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?’, adding ‘My art gives meaning to my life’. Thus he considered his entire work as a single entity: The Frieze of Life. The frieze was manifestly an expression of anxiety (for example, in The Scream) but also of tender pathos: of the ‘dance of life’. (This seems to have been a common subject at the time; we find Gustav Mahler alluding to it in reference to the dance-like movements of his symphonies.) Munch … perceived sex as an ineluctable destiny, and few of his works represent Woman (capitalized as usual) in a favorable light. In Puberty a skinny young girl meditates, sitting naked on her bed beneath the threatening form of her own shadow, while in The Voice a young woman, alone in the woods, attends to some inner whisper; these are the most sensitive representations of woman in Munch’s work.
“In another iconic image, the Madonna, of which he painted various versions between 1893 and 1902, overtly offers her ecstatic sexuality and yet remains inaccessible. Why inaccessible? A lithographic version suggests the answer: around the frame which encloses the seductress the straggling spermatozoa wriggle in vain while, in the lower left-hand corner, a pathetic homunculus, a wizened and ageless wide-eyed fetus, lifts its supplicant gaze toward the goddess.
“Munch’s lithograph verges on irony, to which he was not averse. Even so, modifying the well-known phrase, we may wish to suggest that ‘irony is the courtesy of despair’. Munch’s art represents women in the light of trauma. Seduction itself is a source of anxiety; satisfaction brings remorse (Ashes), and jealousy and separation are experienced as terrifying and depressing events.
“The personal aspect of Munch’s work need not concern us in relation to a coherent and authoritative œuvre whose themes are … common to many other artists of the time. But it should be noted that, at around forty-five, Munch suffered a profound depression and spent eight months in a sanatorium in Denmark. Thereafter he gave up the anxiety-laden subject matter so central to his work and began painting everyday subjects with the same vigorous brushwork and expressionistic colors as before. His motives may have been prophylactic. He later claimed to a friend that he had simultaneously given up women and alcohol, though here again irony is not ruled out.”
I went to a museum in Washington D.C. this summer and they had an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s lithographs. I was naturally interested because I was signed up to take lithography when school started. I instantly loved his dark and moody scenes of gaunt figures and gloomy environments. I think the marks of lithography lend themselves well to the haunting affect of his works. The viewer can really see the torment of the man through the art.