At the British Museum

John-Paul Stonard

When Count Harry Kessler met Edvard Munch in Berlin early in 1895, Munch was ‘still young’, Kessler wrote, but seemed ‘worn out, tired, and in both a psychic and physical sense, hungry’. Munch was 31 and already known for his strange and shocking paintings, but he had yet to make any money from them. Kessler came up with a fund-raising scheme: a portfolio of prints by Munch, to be published by Julius Meier-Graefe and sold through his journal, Pan. They were Munch’s first attempts at printmaking and lacked the boldness of his paintings. Few of the portfolios sold and the scheme flopped.

‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1918)
‘The Girls on the Bridge’ (1918)

As Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum (until 21 July) shows, he soon hit his stride as a printmaker. Within a few years he had created one of his finest prints (he said so himself): a colour lithograph made in Paris with the printmaker Auguste Clot. The head of a dying girl – in fact the model Betzy Nilsen – rests in profile on her sickbed pillow. Everything about the image is feverish; the line breaks out into delirious scribbles, reined in here, resurfacing there. The print was based on The Sick Child, a painting Munch made ten years earlier recalling his sister Sophie, who had died from tuberculosis at the age of 15. It was painted in short, cutting strokes, the surface scrubbed and scratched. Munch saw The Sick Child, along with a companion piece, Spring, which shows Sophie sitting in a chair, as his first significant steps away from conventional naturalism towards a more personal, symbolic style – what he called sjaelemaleri, or ‘soul-painting’.

When the original painting of The Sick Child was first shown, at the 1886 Autumn Exhibition in Kristiania (what’s now Oslo), the critics went to town: it was a travesty, they said, an unfinished daub, the ravings of a madman. Munch, despite what one of his contemporaries called his ‘Parsifalian innocence’, could hardly have been surprised. ‘They eat newly slaughtered young painter for breakfast,’ he complained, but he knew the publicity value of a scandal. A few years later, his solo exhibition at the Artists’ Association in Berlin caused an uproar that became known as Der Fall Munch (‘The Munch Affair’), dividing critics and bringing him to the attention of Kessler.

Inherently graphic and lacking the naturalistic potential of painting, woodcuts, etchings and lithographs could go further than sjaelemaleri in depicting extreme emotional states. Painting could show the beauty of the world, but according to Max Klinger’s influential 1891 book Malerei und Zeichnung (‘Painting and Drawing’), printmaking could show the darker side of life, the torments and fantasies of the artist’s mind. Someone, perhaps Munch himself, scribbled ‘Only a madman could paint this!’ in pencil on one of the red bands of cloud in The Scream. A family history of mental illness led Munch to believe that this would also be his fate: ‘Disease and Insanity and Death were the black Angels that stood by my Cradle,’ he wrote. But the public view that he was a madman didn’t hurt his fame, and in the early years he seems to have enjoyed it. After an exhibition in Kristiania in 1895, a public debate was held on the subject of his sanity – he is said to have attended, concealing himself behind a curtain.

Many of his prints seem to be crystallisations of the extreme emotional state proposed in the original painted images. The Girls on the Bridge, painted in 1901, shows three girls standing on the ferry pier on the Oslofjord. There is a mood of pleasurable expectation, the bright reds and greens of the girls’ dresses only partially offset by the ominous dark reflections of trees on the water. In the print Munch later made of the same scene, a woodcut with zincograph (a way of applying colour using a zinc plate in place of a lithographic stone), the mood has changed entirely. There is a new violence around the women, as though the scene were viewed through the eyes of a jealous or rejected lover. A fortified palisade of strokes, like heavy scratches, seems to show rain pouring from the sky, while the tree (in fact three trees forming one large crown), green and vibrant in the original, becomes a threatening shape, darkly reflected in the fjord. In Angst (1896), the faces of the crowd are apparitions, their features distorted, the whole image marked by cracked lines: reverberations of an apocalypse signified by the red sky.

‘Angst’ (1896)
‘Angst’ (1896)

Munch made his name in Paris and New York with a (now very rare) lithograph version of The Scream. The print, taken directly from the painting made in Berlin two years earlier, in 1893, is captioned in German, ‘I felt a great scream go through nature,’ a reference to the ‘world-scream’ he experienced while out walking with two friends on the eastern shore of the Oslofjord. The lithograph was reproduced in La Revue blanche and the American magazine Mademoiselle, with the result that Munch’s name became inseparable from the painting and its howling figure, despite its being the weakest picture in his Frieze of Life series. One detail appears more clearly in the print: two small boats in the fjord, above the man’s head. They are impossibly still – remaining level on the calm waters – while the scream surges all around. In the painted versions (there are four) the boats are indistinct, whereas in the lithograph they stand out clearly, their cruciform masts suggesting a strange, secular lamentation (crucifixion scenes are one of the few precedents in art for images of harrowing grief).

A few years after painting The Scream, Munch made a drawing, The Empty Cross, reflecting on his religious disenchantment as an adolescent: ‘A blood red sun shines in the heavens – The Cross was empty,’ he wrote alongside the drawing. Munch’s rejection of his Lutheran father’s suffocating piety was linked to his rejection of naturalism in painting. But he was more interested in creating a mood than driving home any particular point. As with his paintings, the drama of the prints is always archetypal, the emotions generalised.

His woodcuts and lithographs are often very beautiful in design. He created his coloured woodblock prints by jigsawing the block into pieces, inking them separately and then reassembling them, a new technique in the West – it was also used by Gauguin – which had its precedent in Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaking from a century earlier. Isolating the parts of the print in this way has a strong psychological dimension in his work. In The Lonely Ones, which shows a woman and a man standing on the seashore, the figures seem physically separated by the cutting technique, as though from two different images. The man, printed in black, is part of the landscape; the woman, in colour, stands apart. Where the figures are joined, in Towards the Forest, for example, they don’t so much meld into as fit around one another. Munch made numerous versions of this print, cutting the block into more and more pieces, and printing and inking in different sequences, increasing the clarity of the parts as he went along so that it appears, looking across the series, as though the two figures facing the trees are emerging backwards out of the forest gloom – an effect exaggerated by the long-grained wood of the printing block.

Munch’s obsession was with the image, the motif; emotions always remain on the surface. The superficiality of his depictions of women is particularly evident in the prints. One lithograph portrait of an unknown woman, breasts bared, navel impossibly high, is titled Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes: Sin. Munch’s women loll around on beds with hangovers or try to entrap poor frightened men with their long red (danger!) hair. They seem to be ciphers for his own anxieties. In 1908 he wrote a poem called ‘The City of Free Love’, a satire which expressed his bitterness towards the idea, as well as towards women, and sex in general. ‘I have lived in a period of transition, moving towards the emancipation of women when it becomes women’s turn to seduce, entice and deceive – Carmen’s time,’ he wrote.

His attitude was in part a reaction to his early experiences in Kristiania, in the bohemian circle around the writer Hans Jaeger. Although Munch distanced himself from the group, he remained an admirer of Jaeger, and his final work before his death in 1944 was a print based on a portrait of Jaeger he had made at the age of 26. The manifesto of the Kristiania Bohemians began with the decree ‘Thou shalt write thy life.’ (It also demanded its members sever family ties and commit suicide.) Munch ‘wrote his life’ in both senses – drawing on his experiences in his work, but also shaping his public persona through his images. His best prints reflect this tension, this self-conscious to-and-fro between art and life.

Munch tried to write his legacy as well as his life. Nobody, not even his housekeeper (whom he eventually sacked for interrupting his work), was allowed on the second floor of the house at Ekely, on the outskirts of Kristiania, where he spent his last thirty years. The rooms were filled with his own works of art, including more than fifteen thousand prints, as well as lithographic stones, etching plates and woodcut blocks. This vast hoard, intended as a gift to the city, formed the collection of the Munch Museum that opened in Oslo twenty years after his death, and from which most of the prints on display at the British Museum originate.