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October 28, 2005

Christie Davies visits Edvard Munch by Himself at the Royal Academy and considers the three curses of the creative Scandinavian man: anxiety, alcohol and Scandinavian women

Posted by Christie Davies

Edvard Munch by Himself
Royal Academy, London
1st October - 11th December 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

Edvard Munch's self-portraits, like the paintings shown earlier this year at the Tate Modern by his Swedish contemporary August Strindberg, whom he knew well, radiate misery. Creative Scandinavians are miserable, a source of misery in others and have a genius for expressing misery. To an extent this gift of misery also held Henrik Ibsen and Knud Hamsun, which more or less exhausts the list of interestingly talented people from north of Lűbeck.

Munch's sense of misery and isolation expressed through his self-portraits comes across most strongly in Golgotha 1900, where he is crucified naked in front of an anonymous crowd whose arms and heads incline, flow and indeed fly towards him, as if they had lost all solidity, all weight. In the foreground, shown as Roman soldiers and general tormentors, are his critics who were members of the same Bohemian coterie in Oslo as himself; their faces are shown clearly and full of caricatured malice, both serious and gleeful. Only his long dead mother has returned to mourn. St. John seems to have joined the critics.

In On the operating table 1902-3, we again see an isolated, naked Munch this time surrounded by three faceless doctors, an almost faceless nurse, whose faint features hint of Tenniel's mad Duchess, and behind a window a host of faceless medical students. Munch lies white, horizontal and helpless before the four standing figures with the blood-smeared nurse carrying a huge bowl of Munch's blood. Munch had indeed had an operation not long before but it was to extract a bullet from his finger and was done without anaesthetic. It was not the external reality of an operation that Munch painted but his own feelings as an innocent hospitalised victim of a deadly attack by a personal enemy; his paintings are an expression of that sense of injury.

As he aged Munch became more and more isolated, living as a recluse on his estate somewhere beyond the clean, well-lit, dismal city of Oslo. In The Night Wanderer, 1923-4, the insomniac Munch leans towards us within his bleakened prison-house, the side of his head in the light but his eyes caught in such a dark contrived shadow as to be invisible.

It all draws to an end with Self Portrait between Clock and Bed, 1940—1942, two years before he died in a Norway occupied by the same Nazis who had condemned his work as degenerate and expelled it from German art galleries. They saw it as the opposite of their Soviet-style ideal of pictures of unnaturally natural, strong and joyful party-comrades shouting slogans about victory. Now in occupied Norway a tall bald Munch stands eyeless between an even taller grandfather clock without hands and the bed where he will soon die, helpless and horizontal. Behind him a door leads into another, but this time brightly lit, room where his earlier vividly coloured pictures still hang. To the side of the bed with its fierce pattern of red and black lines hangs only a faint green nude in shadow. Time had run out for Munch, though not for his art, still bright in the further room and still bright in this exhibition in the Royal Academy. Life is short, so go and see it as soon as you can and before the Norwegian art robbers pounce on the galleries again in Oslo, the art-heist capital of the world.

Even when painting himself with confidence as in Self Portrait with Brushes, 1904, Munch seems uneasy. In his earlier Self Portrait with Cigarette, 1895, a truly smoke-swirling picture, he seems to emerge from darkness like a devil coming up from a trap door on a dim stage with a single spotlight from below picking out his face.

The cigarette then as now meant death. Today it signifies willful self-destruction as the addict's lungs shrink with emphysema and his toes, feet, ankles and legs are in turn amputated as a consequence of peripheral neuritis. We can smell death in his dirty tobacco-sodden breath and clothes. In Munch's day the cigarette was, rather, a symbol of the death of society, of decadence, of the replacement of the manly pipe, firm in the fist, gripped hard between dentures until the pressure of the stem wore them flat, by the soft, classless, androgynous cigarette. The pipe signified character and the cigar social position but fags were decadent. By choosing to show himself with cigarette Munch was being as self-consciously decadent as Oscar Wilde flashing his gasper between mauve gloves when going onstage to answer the call of "Author" on the first night of Lady Windermere's Fan.

Munch's real drug of destruction, though, can be seen in Self Portrait with a Bottle of Wine, 1906. Munch sits gloomily in the foreground like, though not as washed out as, Edgar Degas' The Absinthe Drinker 1876. On either side Munch is trapped between the two lines of the white table-cloth covered tables of the café. They converge behind him and reach for the two faceless waiters standing back to back, the anonymous purveyors of the bottle and glass that sit beside him like a still life. The bottle is just one more slim beguiling woman about to betray him but who is the crone at the back, next to the fearful red tunnel mouth to which the white-draped coffin-like tables point? Shortly after completing this painting Munch was admitted to a clinic in Copenhagen to be treated for alcohol and anxiety.

Behind the anxiety and the retreat into alcohol of Munch and other creative men lay the predatory, possessive and destructive Scandinavian women who surrounded them, creatures so very different from our own dear ladies. When the Scandinavians depicted the women of their own Bohemian circle as blood-sucking vampires, as manipulative witches, as deceivers and murderesses, as Delilah or Salome, they were not being mere misogynists or men trapped in fearful fantasies but portraying as best they could the destructive new Scandinavian woman, a social fact in her own right. These women's wealth, education and entry into Bohemian circles gave them an unrealistic wish to be creative; they saw it not as a rare and draining gift demanding toil but as a right that came with Scandymancipation. These women had little artistic talent and none at all in painting and so they sought to possess and destroy a man who had that which they lacked. It was a clear case of genius-envy. Munch's negative portrayals of woman the destroyer are not the product of his unhinged mind but the result of his direct experience of a pathological social reality.

A woman easily recognizable as Munch's former mistress, Tulla Larsen, appears with him in many portraits, notably in Still Life, The Murderess, 1906, and the series The Death of Marat, 1906-1907. In each case the corpse of the naked murdered Munch is laid out on a blood-stained bed, sometimes with his arms stretched out like Christ. Tulla Larsen, Munch's killer, dominates the picture. In Still Life, The Murderess, 1906, she stands at the back in a loose gown radiating a destructive force that meshes with the light shining through the curtains. In Death of Marat I, 1907 she stands tall at the front, between the death bed and the table, naked and beautiful with her long fair hair. The darkness emanating from the blood on the bed stretches across her legs to the fruit on the table opposite. In an earlier lithograph Munch shows himself as a mere vague green shape of a corpse that is interrupted by and crossed by a sinister, severely vertical, physically perfect, naked woman done in red who has the eyes of a killeress.

It has been argued that in these paintings Munch had wildly over-reacted to the break up of his affair with Tulla Larsen and is in these dramatic pictures making her the destroyer of his life. Yet what may really have happened?

Larsen had tried to gain control of Munch and wanted to marry him. When he left for Europe she pursued him through France and Switzerland to Italy. When he returned to Norway and found himself a new and placid girl-friend, Larsen, a wealthy heiress, stalked him. She bribed his friends to follow him everywhere and report to her by phone. She threatened suicide and claimed morphine addiction to manipulate him into feeling guilty and returning to her. She kept it up until Ingse his new girl-friend felt forced to leave. Finally a friend of Tulla's told Munch that Tulla was dying of an overdose and that only he could save her. He rushed to her home where she had been laid out like a corpse with candles lit beside her head. She now suddenly rose up from the dead and first sobbed and then laughed at him. Finally she produced a revolver and shot him in the hand, the very source of his work as an artist.

Fortunately she did not know her left from her right and hit the hand that held the palette, from which as we have seen the doctors had to extract a bullet. She had tried to kill the art that she could not create herself and which she also knew to be her real rival. Munch could have bled to death but her main concern was to clean away Munch's blood from her floor with a cloth. Three weeks later Tulla Larsen married another talented Norwegian artist Arne Kavli, nine years younger than she was, a marriage that lasted only seven years. Some collect works of art as trophy and substitute; some collect artists. Larsen had tried to play the Hedda Gabler. Munch's pictures of her are a just retribution. That is how she will always be remembered.

The Larsen-syndrome was a social phenomena inexorably produced by the upper-middle class women of radical Bohemian Norway, those red-stockings who had abandoned the constraints of decency and propriety, of family, community and religion.

Among the portraits by Munch in the exhibition we also find Dagny Juel Przbyszewska 1893 and Oda Krohg in Kristiana Bohemia II 1895. Dagny Juel, a woman from a respectable Norwegian family, her father physician to the King of Sweden, (which then happily embraced Norway), had aspirations to be a musician, and went to Berlin where she joined the avant garde "To the Black Piglet" circle. After affairs with both Munch and Strindberg she married a Polish writer, took a Polish lover who committed suicide in despair and then, forsaking her children, ran off from Kraków to Tbilisi at the other end of Tsarist Russia with yet another Pole; he murdered her and then killed himself. Dagny Juel wrote nationalistic effusions in both Norwegian and Polish and had an expensive cardigan named after her but she is known today only as the woman painted by Munch both in this portrait and as Madonna 1895.

Oda Krohg was the crassest of painters. Imagine mixing Norman Rockwell and Mabel Lucie Attwell in a blender and then throwing in a dose of Impressionist sauce and a hint of Japanese prints; she is still much liked in Lillehammer where you can ski. She broke with her businessman husband Jørgen Engelhardt and married secondly the well-known artist Christian Krohg whom she drove to drink. She is coyly described by the Norwegian Munch Museet as "much courted". Quite. At the Royal Academy in Munch's Kristiana Bohemia II 1895 she presides over a collection of her husbands and her many lovers, including Jappe - Jappe on the Beach /Melancholy 1892-3 - Nilssen and an entire Jaeger battalion of anarchists. Of the men, the big bald dome-head Engelhardt alone looks manly, though a bit H. M. Batemanish, his powerful hand seeking a glass . The picture lined up by the bottle in the foreground, leads inexorably to the destructive femme fatal, Oda Krohg, hands on hips in the pose and blouse her husband Christian had captured in Oda 1886.

In Christian Krohg, Munch's teacher, whose Dobbo-bearded statue now presides over Karl Johans Gate in Oslo, Oda obviously thought she had captured her artist (though it has to be said that she didn't stop looking and reduced the young writer Jappe Nilssen to the Melancholy 1891 and 1892 depicted by Munch). She had not. The full measure of how Munch's genius transformed Norwegian painting may be seen by comparing Munch's The Sick Child 1886 with the coy naturalism of Krohg's Den Syge Pige (The Sick Wee Lassie) 1891. It is amazing that Krohg had the crassness to go on painting in the same old way after his former pupil had shown him how it should be done. Even in his own life-time and before the first world war Munch was hailed as one one of the great creators of modernity alongside Cėzanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. In the twenty-first century we are still celebrating his achievement.

Edvard Munch by Himself, is a real joy, an outstanding exhibition, a credit to the curator Iris Műller-Westermann and to the original organisers, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, who have already shown it in Stockholm and Oslo. With characteristic Swedish effeciency and generosity of spirit they have marked the centenary of Norway's strange secession from Swedish rule in 1905 with a celebration of Edvard Munch, a truly Scandinavian artist.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction 2004.

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An interesting piece - but one quibble. Prof. Davies presents something as fact which - at best - can only be termed a theory: namely that Tulla Larsen shot Munch in the hand. It is far from clear that this is the case. Edvard Munch was shot in the hand while visiting Tulla Larsen - but by whom is not clear. It is usually supposed that Munch shot himself in the hand - as a response to Tulla Larsen threatening to kill herself.

Posted by: Joanna at November 1, 2005 03:06 PM

Christie Davies writes well and intelligently - but his writing is marred by an ideological obsession - anti-feminism, shading into misogyny. (It is less marked here than in a previous review of Frida Kahlo). Is Prof. Davies competing for the David Watkin Prize for Misogynist Art Writing?

Posted by: Anna at November 1, 2005 03:11 PM


I have read much of Prof. Davies’ writings, and I would say that if he has an ideological obsession, it is against ideologies. His hostility to Frida Kahlo would, I guess, be due to her Marxism, an ideology which has left many Russians, in their own word, bezdushi (soulless).

And his observation that prominent feminists have tended to marry abusive men is a sociological one. I would suggest that there is more than a grain of truth in Andrea Dworkin’s association of the male desire to rape to the murderous instinct – an association which has at certain times in history been systematized, for example by Genghis Khan. Nevertheless, Dworkin’s first marriage was to a very abusive husband.

Similarly, Theodore Dalrymple has made the observation (I forget where) that certain types of women seem to be drawn to men who are visibly evil. Such an observation would not make him either an anti-feminist or a misogynist, since his moral judgement rests heavier on the man. Further, the author of Genesis, in noting the curse on Eve that “your desire shall be for your man, and he shall rule over you”, is showing that this male domination is a curse, not a good thing.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 1, 2005 08:43 PM
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