Edvard Munch: The Colors of the Soul

Angst, loneliness, ecstasy, pain...Munch's deeply psychological and emotional works reflect the realities of humanity.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Love and Pain (Vampire), 1895, oil on canvas, 91 x 109 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image (detail)
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Love and Pain (Vampire), 1895, oil on canvas, 91 x 109 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image (detail)

Despite having made countless paintings, Edvard Munch's best known work is certainly The Scream (1893), a masterpiece in which the colors seem to almost "shout" from the canvas, together with the character in the foreground. The painting, which has become the symbol of a society that is anguished and terrified by its surroundings, is however only one among many in which the Norwegian artist manifests his main intent: to transfer human truths to the canvas. Art for Munch, born from the desire to reveal oneself and open up to others, is the blood of the heart itself, as the artist once said.

Related: New Secrets of Munch's 'The Scream' Are Revealed

Born in Løten on December 12, 1863, Munch had a tormented and painful childhood, marked by sickness, deaths and neurosis. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, followed by his beloved older sister Johanne Sophie in 1877. In the painting The Sick Child (1885-1886), considered a turning point for Munch's artistic production and his breaking point with Impressionism, Munch transported the agony of this death to canvas, implementing the teachings of bohemian friend Hans Jæger, who had urged him to paint his emotional and psychological state in a kind of "soul painting".

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Sick Child, 1885-1886, oil on canvas, 120 × 118.5 cm, National Gallery of Norway. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), The Sick Child, 1885-1886, oil on canvas, 120 × 118.5 cm, National Gallery of Norway. Public domain image

To the misfortunes already mentioned were added a series of psychological crises of his other sister, Laura, the manic-depressive syndrome of his father and the death of another brother, Andreas. The family's economic conditions were rather precarious and Munch's earliest artistic works reflected the hardships he experienced in his youth, depicting the small and dark interiors in which he lived.

Later, Munch became a passionate traveler and while exploring other countries, he came into contact with new influences and major European artistic currents. In Paris, for example, he learned a lot from prominent artists such as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, especially their use of color.

Related: 10 Artists Between Genius and Madness

The decade 1892-1902 represents the most important period of Munch's activity: in these years the artist defined his pictorial language, which is enriched with Symbolism and would go on to influence Expressionism. The recurring themes are love, death and existential anguish, depicted by deformed images and garish colors. In this period his iconic Scream was also born, emblematic of the condition of the modern man, prey to anxiety, inner loneliness and mal de vivre. That "great infinite scream" which according to Munch pervaded Nature, became the manifesto of his artwork, an expression of the lonely scream of all humanity.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, Munch Museum. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863-1944), The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, Munch Museum. Public domain image

The bright tones and strong colors of the Scream, in particular the blood-red of the sunset, are also present in the work Madonna in which the artist intertwines the sacred and the profane, depicting a bare-breasted woman with an expression that some have compared to erotic ecstasy. The painting's duotone (the red of the halo and the black of the hair) seems to recall the dichotomy of love and death.

Related: What Lies Beneath the Red Sky of Munch’s ‘The Scream’?

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Madonna, 1894-1895, oil on canvas, 90 x 68 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Madonna, 1894-1895, oil on canvas, 90 x 68 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image

We find a similar duotone, always imbued with the typical disquiet of Munch, in the work Love and Pain (or simply Vampire), in which the artist portrays the woman as an enigmatic figure, endowed with an almost demonic charm capable of subjecting man to her will. The man seems to surrender to an apparently loving but deadly embrace, wrapped in the sprawling red hair of the "vampire" as she bites or kisses his neck. Perhaps more than others, this work best represents the painter's complicated relationship with the opposite sex: for Munch the woman was the epicenter of a tumultuous erotic mystery, inextricably linked to Death. To love means to suffer, as he considered it impossible to resist desire.

Related: An Artistic Representation of Breasts Throughout the Centuries

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Love and Pain (Vampire), 1895, oil on canvas, 91 x 109 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Love and Pain (Vampire), 1895, oil on canvas, 91 x 109 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image

The painting Eye in Eye is a further example of the incommunicability between man and woman (but also of human incommunicability in general), with the man and woman facing each other, but unable to look or speak to each other as they have no eyes and mouth.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Eye in Eye, 1899-1900, oil on canvas, Munch Museum. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Eye in Eye, 1899-1900, oil on canvas, Munch Museum. Public domain image

Due to this negative view of love, Munch often had tormented love affairs, such as the one with Mathilde "Tulla" Larsen, which in 1902 resulted in a heated argument in which a gunshot hit the painter on his left hand.

Related: Mirror of the Soul: Eyes in Art

In the 1930s and 1940s, after the Nazis occupied Norway, Munch's works were labeled degenerate and authorities removed 82 works oh his exhibited in German museums.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Weeping Nude, between 1913 and 1914, oil on canvas, 110 x 135 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Weeping Nude, between 1913 and 1914, oil on canvas, 110 x 135 cm, Munch Museum. Public domain image

Related: The 12 Most Expensive Paintings Ever Auctioned

Munch died on January 23, 1944, in the idyllic estate near Oslo where he had retired in his later years. His works have since often caused a sensation at auction: one of the versions of The Scream was sold at Sotheby's in 2012 for the staggering sum of almost $120 million, further confirming his artistic recognition. Munch's art can be admired today at the grandiose new location of the Munch museum opened in Oslo in October 2021 on the edge of a fjord. Among paintings, drawings, photographs, letters and personal objects you can immerse yourself in the colors of the soul of this fascinating and complex artist.

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