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  • Writer's pictureRossella BLUE Mocerino

Edvard Munch: Reflections on Life and Death

Memento mori is translated from Latin to mean ‘remember you must die’. Edvard Munch’s art reminds us to reflect on our mortality.


Evening on Karl Johan Avenue by Edvard Munch
Evening on Karl Johan Avenue by Edvard Munch

Munch’s work was obsessed with memento mori, not just as he got older but throughout his life. It is not hard to understand why Munch was obsessed. He tells us that his mother and his paternal grandfather, as well many members of his extended family, died of tuberculosis. If they did not succumb to death, they suffered life-long consequences. Munch believed that he had inherited the seed of madness from his father and a weak constitution from his mother. He writes: "Sickness and madness and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle." Given all the illness rampant in his family, Munch asserted it would have been a crime for him to marry.


The Sick Girl by Edvard Munch
The Sick Girl by Edvard Munch

He painted The Sick Girl with red hair several times. He wanted to capture on canvas the first impression he had on seeing the pallid face resting on the cushion so he returned to this painting years later and produced three more variations of this theme.


The Scream by Edvard Munch
The Scream by Edvard Munch

He also produced several versions of The Scream, perhaps his most iconic work. “I remained immobile trembling from anguish and I heard bounce through nature an immense infinite scream”. The Scream (original version not shown in this post) was highly criticized when it was first exhibited in Norway in 1895. The critics viewed the screaming figure surrounded by a swirl of menacing clouds as a sign of the artist’s own mental illness. Someone even vandalized the work by penciling on the top left corner of the work “Could only have been painted by a madman”. It is now believed that the author of the vandalism was Munch himself.


Despair by Edvard Munch
Despair by Edvard Munch

Munch was prone to bouts of existentialism. “ I don’t have any more hope. Nothing to expect with joy so why work - why bother when I will have to eventually die one day. The knowledge to have done something great should be its own recompose. Which is the best painting? A miserable copy, a miserable representation of life”. As Munch viewed it, life and death held hands in a constant partnership. Everything alive has a beginning and an end. An indisputable fact.


Edvard Munch Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm
Edvard Munch Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm

He painted several self-portraits where some of his body is already turning into a skeleton. In this black and white portrait his arm has been depicted as merely bones. A true depiction of what is known as memento mori art.


Love and Death by Edvard Munch
Love and Death by Edvard Munch

Despite all this negativism, Munch declared he loved life, perhaps in a frenetic race for the time he had remaining. His lovers, intertwined in a tight embrace, falling under the all-encompassing blanket made up of the red hair of the woman, speak of an intense ‘now in the moment’ passion. Klimt was highly influenced by Munch’s lovers for his own iconic The Kiss.


Girls on the Bridge by Edvard Munch
Girls on the Bridge by Edvard Munch

To those that labeled his work morose and too unsettling, Munch declared that “I have tried to understand my life and its significance. I intended to help others do the same about their own lives”.


Note. I had a chance to see 'Edvard Munch, A Poem of Life, Love and Death' in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay in October 2022 . All the images reproduced here are from the Paris show.


A few months later, browsing through a bookshop in Venice I stumbled upon ‘Edvard Munch The Dance of Life' subtitled 'my art as told by me.’ To understand Munch better, I bought the book. Munch wrote about his art and his feelings all through his life. I quote him throughout the post. The Norwegian was translated into Italian by Ingrid Basso. The rough translation from Italian to English falls on my shoulders. Munch had a very poetic way of breaking up his sentences which I did not adhere to.

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