Edvard Munch: Scandi novelists on the master of misery and menace

How is the great Norwegian artist seen back home? Ahead of a new British Museum show, Karl Ove Knausgaard and other Scandinavian novelists explain what Munch means to them

Edvard Munch’s most famous creation is a bit of a scream: the funny little figure with its squishy bald head, hands to face as if edified by some particularly scandalous bit of gossip, and all against that glorious flame-red sky. Can Munch be entirely serious? The Scream is cherished across the world and only marginally less famous than the Mona Lisa herself. Yet the anguish compressed in that lightbulb-shaped face is very slightly comic, destined for the frat-house horror movie and the Halloween mask.

People feel affection for this poor little creature, so alone, whose howl is empathetically echoed by nature but ignored by the callous passersby on the bridge. We are meant to identify with this solitary soul. The fact that he – or she, or they – is so appealing goes to Munch’s radical imagination. With The Scream, he invented one of the greatest archetypes in the history of art.

His own life was full of anguish. Born in Norway in 1863, Munch was motherless by the age of five and tyrannised by a hellfire zealot of a father who forced him out of bed at midnight to watch the death of his young sister. Asthmatic, bronchitic, alcoholic, he suffered two nervous breakdowns and many broken relationships. One ex-lover threatened to kill herself. A nomad in his youth, he never married and eventually settled in the village of Ekely outside Oslo, where he died at the age of 80 in 1944, always fearful that his paintings might be seized during the Nazi occupation of Norway.

His genius lies partly in coining such extraordinary icons of misery and menace. The femme-fatale, with her long hair flailing around her in psychedelic tendrils. The naked girl on the bed in Puberty, trying to shield her modesty against prying eyes while her shadow rears up on the wall like a monster behind her. Those fantastical scenes in which lovers seem to be sucking one another’s blood, locked in a fatal embrace or kissing each other to death.

Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919)
Self-Portrait With the Spanish Flu, 1919. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

And this is his unique and brilliant modus operandi – exaggeration in the service of truth. We all know what it means to say that our lives are hell, but Munch actually paints himself that way: up to his loins in infernal flames. In a suffocating relationship? Look at his painting of a man literally gasping for breath in a woman’s embrace. You ruined my life: that is the subtext of a fantastically theatrical self-portrait in which the artist lies in a spreading pool of his own blood, after his lover has shot him to death.

Munch is the miserabilist par excellence, and generous to a fault. He does the suffering on our behalf. Completely shameless when it comes to hypochondria, jealousy or rancour, he is never too proud to show himself eaten up by self-pity or lust. His passions are open and so is his art, with its swirling amoebic forms and its high-coloured melodrama. He paints universal suffering every time: and who could fail to recognise the emotions in his art?

He is equally powerful in drawing, painting, etching and woodcut, as will be seen at the forthcoming show of his prints at the British Museum. Many of his symbolic figures – the screamer, for instance – are reprised in every medium. And he has no fear of appearing ludicrous or hyperbolic in the many dozens of self-portraits, where Munch shows himself as the spurned lover, the lone drinker, the victim of Spanish flu or the murdered corpse. In the late – and arguably greatest – of his self-portraits, Munch depicts himself as an elderly and infirm depressive standing between a grandfather clock and the coffin of his narrow bed. He is still heroically upright, but listening to time as it ticks away towards to death.

His despair is magnificently visual, showing itself in hundreds of works of unforgettable graphic force. And no matter how autobiographical they may seem to be, Munch’s Weltanschauung embraces all mankind. This is what his titles suggest: The Scream, Desolation, Anguish, Inner Turmoil – who hasn’t felt this way, at one time or another? The story of Munch’s life becomes our own, in this pictorial catharsis. The bad times are always good in his art.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘Seeing Munch is like reading Dostoevsky – very direct, raw and powerful’

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Norwegian novelist best known for his six autobiographical novels, My Struggle (Min Kamp). His new book, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch, is published by Harvill Secker on Thursday. He lives between Oslo and London.

For a long time I took Munch for granted, but that has changed now. It has been a slow process, beginning when I turned 40 and one of the presents I received was The Collected Paintings of Edvard Munch. It was in four volumes, everything he ever painted, and I was very surprised when I looked at the pictures because I thought I knew Munch. Everyone who comes from Norway knows Munch. The Scream is one of the iconic pictures in our culture. We’ve seen it so many times that we don’t really see it any more. Yet here, in these volumes, there were so many paintings and so many aspects of Munch I hadn’t seen before.

A while later I was asked by the Munch Museum in Oslo to make a speech at a celebration of his 150th birthday, so I spent a lot of time with many of his images while I tried to figure out what to say. The museum then asked me to curate an exhibition of his lesser-known work, which I agreed to do, without having any knowledge of curating and really without knowing what I was doing at all, because by now I was quite captivated by Munch. I was kind of obsessed.

I thought perhaps I could also write a book about him as a way of finding out why his pictures fascinated me so much. So I did that, too, visiting the places where he had lived and worked. I also made a documentary about him, which has just come out in Norway. Working on these projects introduced me to a different Munch and completely revitalised the more canonical Munch for me.

The Scream, 1893, by Munch
The Scream, 1893. Photograph: Associated Press

The first time I saw a real Munch painting was in the National Gallery in Oslo. I must have been 17 and I hadn’t been in a museum before. I was quite liking the experience but then I turned a corner into the Munch room, where everything changed. The pictures were on another level. It was almost shocking. I hadn’t seen much art at that time but I had read a lot of books and I could compare seeing Munch with the effect of reading Dostoevsky. It’s very direct, it is very emotional. It is not anti-intellectual, but it has nothing to do with intellect, almost. It grips you. And you want that existential dimension to art at that age.

As a man, Munch was a complex mix of character traits. He was difficult and anti-social but also elegant and a man of the world. He came from a prominent family, which perhaps gave him the self-confidence to keep on doing what he did even though he was initially laughed at: he knew his value. At the same time, he was extremely vain, self-occupied and nervous, talking non-stop. I think he was very unprotected against the world, so the painting was a way of shielding himself. He was very narcissistic and unable to connect and have relationships, especially with women. Probably that is to do with losing his mother when he was five and his big sister, whom he really loved, when he was 13. If you want to understand him, you have to take into account those losses. Painting was a way of dealing with them for him.

A few years ago, I bought a Munch print at an auction. It’s a very simple drawing of a woman’s head, very beautiful, and the eyes are very much alive. It’s not a masterpiece, because he could have drawn 10 a day if he had wanted to. But to see how simplicity and complexity meet in his lines is a wonderful thing. He was first and foremost a very fine draftsman.

Owning a Munch in Norway is really bourgeois. It is a status symbol: it means you have money and aspire to a position in society. It is something my rebellious, younger self would have sneered at. But I excused myself by rationalising that I could use the money I got from curating the exhibition to pay for the picture. I have it on my wall now and I look at it often. Many pieces of visual art you can look at for only so long and then there is nothing to see any more, they are worn out. But this picture, because of its simplicity, remains fresh; it gives me great pleasure.

My kids like Munch. Young people respond to him because there is no doubt as to what his paintings are about and the feelings they evoke. They are very direct, very simple, raw and powerful. One of the reasons The Scream was so shocking when Munch first painted it was that all distance is removed and there is no space between you and the image. It’s instant emotion. That was revolutionary in the 1890s, when there were all kinds of barriers in paintings. But now we live in an instant time, so Munch feels incredibly relevant and contemporary.

In my book I talk quite a lot about how we don’t really see The Scream any more. But while I was curating the Oslo exhibition, a German TV team came to film me putting it together and asked if they could see The Scream with no glass, no frame, just completely naked. Looking at it like that, I saw for the first time what an incredibly wild painting it is and how good it is – and how fresh, when everything around it is removed. So, if you really look you can still see the meaning of it: the picture remains alive.
Interview by Lisa O’Kelly

Linn Ullmann

Linn Ullmann: ‘He speaks anew to every generation and still feels absolutely relevant’

Linn Ullmann is a Norwegian novelist and critic who lives in Oslo. Her six novels include Before You Sleep, A Blessed Child and the award-winning Grace.

I have lived with Munch since I was born. All Norwegians do. He is always there beneath our skin, in our bloodstream, in our DNA.

I remember I would stay with my grandmother when I was little and she had this framed Munch print, Young Woman on the Beach. In the picture there’s a beach with stones and the blue ocean and the woman is dressed in white. She has long, reddish blonde hair, you only see her from behind and I was convinced this was my mother [the actress Liv Ullmann]. My grandmother used to laugh and tell me Munch never painted my mother: they weren’t even alive at the same time. But I didn’t believe her. I still have that little picture up on the wall over my desk and when I look at it I always think of my mother. So Munch’s image has become entangled with my memory of her. It is part of my biography.

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896, by Munch
Young Woman on the Beach, 1896. Photograph: Alamy

It is true Munch captures the essence of the Nordic sensibility and temperament but his pictures are universal. They speak of emotions and feelings that we all have in common: jealousy, anxiety, despair, illness, death. There is joy too, especially in the landscapes, the boats, the calm sea, the colour and the light. You feel that he is speaking to something deep inside you.

My difficulty with some of the better known paintings, in particular The Scream, is I find it near impossible to look at an image that I’ve seen so many times on so many T-shirts, in so many parodies and for it to actually mean something. I think that’s a challenge for curators. Having said that, The Scream feels more resonant than ever these days because that haunted face is what we all wake up making every day. You hear the word Brexit or you see Donald Trump’s face in the newspaper and there you go, The Scream is where you are.

My favourite Munch painting, the one I always return to, especially since turning 50, is Puberty. It’s of a young girl around 14, sitting naked on a bed in a stark, dark room. She is trying to cover herself with her arms and there is this discomfort and vulnerability about her. Her gaze captures girlhood so dramatically and precisely in all its extremity, fear and longing. Behind her is an ominous shadow that’s usually thought to represent anxiety, possibly sexual awakening. Sometimes I think it is just the shadow of her long, dark hair.

That painting and Munch’s other female images have been a huge influence on my writing. Girlhood is something I have written about in several books and there is a brokenness and vulnerability about Munch’s images of girls and, at the same time, a wildness, a complexity and a sense of possibility that really speaks to me. I used to dance, I almost became a dancer, and choreography and dancing are important in my work and to me Munch’s pictures are like pieces of dance. The bodies are in movement. It’s not classical ballet they remind me of but something more muscular and modern, llke Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham.

Edvard Munch: Puberty, 1894
Puberty, 1894. Photograph: Alamy

I went to the Munch Museum a couple of days ago with my daughter, and even though there are only a few scraps there at the moment because most pictures have gone to London, I was struck by the number of young people looking at Munch’s art. I think he speaks anew to every generation and still feels absolutely relevant. There’s this intimacy going on, as if the viewer and the picture are keeping a secret together. LO’K

Writer David Lagercrantz photographed near home in Stockholm , Sweden by Olle Nordell for the Observer New Review 26th Aug 2015

David Lagercrantz: ‘The dark anxiety in his work really chimed with me’

David Lagercrantz is a Swedish journalist and author of the award-winning sports biography I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović. His other books include The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, the fourth and fifth instalments in the Millennium series of crime novels originated by Stieg Larsson.

Munch was one of a series of totemic figures who loomed over my childhood thanks to my father. Dad was Olof Lagercrantz, the Swedish writer, critic and editor of Sweden’s leading daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter. He was one of the most influential intellectuals of his time, and in many ways I have been fighting to get out from his shadow all my life.

When I was in my teens, he wrote a seminal biography of August Strindberg, Munch’s great collaborator, friend, rival and drinking partner. So at an early age I read Munch and Strindberg’s letters to each other and the house was full of high-flown talk about the two men and their work and what they meant in Scandinavian culture. Dad went on to write biographies of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and I think he is one of the reasons why I was drawn to writing popular fiction – I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps in any way.

Even if he hadn’t been Munch’s biographer, I would have grown up with the image of The Scream engraved on my brain, just like every other Scandinavian. Every six- or seven-year-old kid has to try and paint their own version of it in school. I remember going to parties where you had to stand behind a giant copy of the painting, put your face through a hole in the middle of it and have your photograph taken.

The Vampire (Love and Pain) by Munch
The Vampire (Love and Pain), 1894. Photograph: Alamy

As an adolescent, I found Munch’s pictures of women highly erotic. They were so complex and contradictory. We were not wealthy enough to have any actual Munch works in our home, but I had a poster of his painting Madonna pinned up in my room. There was something in this picture that ignited in me this huge longing to grow up and start experiencing life in earnest. I was also obsessed by his 1893 painting, Hands. I felt like one of the hands in the picture was my own. It seemed to beckon me into the painting itself. The Vampire (Love and Pain), Munch’s image of a flame-haired vampire kissing the neck of a crouching man, was another one that fascinated me. There is something so soft and comforting about the woman, but at the same time she is sucking his blood.

Those were heady images for a young man like me. I was desperate at the time to be an intellectual, and Munch epitomised for me the kind of life I wanted to live. He was the first top-class, serious painter whom I really felt I understood. The dark anxiety he expressed in his work really chimed with me, because I felt so much of it myself.

Anxiety and its expression in art is, for Scandinavians, part of the myth of the artist. We see it as a key to understanding not only creativity but what is going on in the world around us, and from that perspective Munch’s images still feel hugely relevant. When we stop and think, “For god’s sake, what’s going on?”, when the craziness in politics and the craziness in climate change feels overwhelming, he seems to give voice to our deepest truths and fears. His paintings feel so ahead of their time.

After #MeToo, I find I am seeing the women in his work from a different perspective. I can see that part of their fascination for me as a young man was voyeuristic and I feel embarrassed about this now. I also think there was an element of voyeurism in the way Munch depicted them. Yet at the same time, they were so much more complex than mere objects. LO’K


Anne Holt: ‘You never tire of Munch’s pictures, there’s an enigma in every one’

Anne Holt is a Norwegian crime novelist, living in Oslo, whose books include 1222 and Offline. She is also a lawyer who served as Norway’s minister for justice. Her latest novel, A Grave for Two, is published by Corvus in July.

I see Munch first and foremost as an artist, not a Norwegian. I feel that like all great artists he is trying to express something universal – his work is about love, fear, death, disease and melancholy.

It’s interesting that he, like Henrik Ibsen, left Norway for long periods of time. He went to Paris and Germany, and stayed there for many years. He wanted to be a part of the larger European community. You can see that Van Gogh really made an impression on him – some of Munch’s paintings are actually paraphrasing Van Gogh’s work, like Starry Night, which even has the same name.

History by Munch, 1911-16
History by Munch, 1911-16. Photograph: Alamy

The only difference between us Norwegians and everybody else in our conception of Edvard Munch is that we meet Munch’s paintings at a very young age. They are reproduced all over the place, and every self-respecting family goes to the Munch Museum. So an average Norwegian has a closer relationship to him as an artist than someone from elsewhere. When I was a toddler, my parents had a reproduction over their bed of a huge painting called History that he did as part of a series for the Aula at the University of Oslo, which shows a grandfather telling a story to a young boy. Every time I see that picture I smile, because it brings back that feeling of being a small, safe kid.

I like the vaguely scary subtext in his pictures: you never tire of them – there’s an enigma in every one. I see something new every time, and I tend to change my mind about which of his pictures are most meaningful for me. We are fortunate that he had painted over such a long period, and his production was overwhelming – he painted several thousand pictures. He went through a lot of different periods. In the late 1800s he painted all these happy, lively, brightly coloured pictures of men and boys swimming. And then a lot of his later pictures are very dark, very preoccupied with death.

The reason Munch continues to fascinate today is that everything that is universal is also timeless. Munch is concerned with the great and hard and difficult feelings of being a human being, and these issues have been touching people since the beginning of time. In many of his paintings Munch is trying to say something about feeling detached. That is something a lot of people are struggling with in our time. The feelings of despair, of not understanding the world, of fear. All these are things that we, the modern human being in 2019, are preoccupied with.
Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is at the British Museum, London WC1, 11 April-21 July


Laura Cumming, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Linn Ullmann, David Lagercrantz, Anne Holt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Edvard Munch: booze, bullets and breakdowns
As a rare Munch show opens in Britain, we travel to Norway to find the forces that unleashed his macabre art – from flame-haired Medusas to primal screams

Claire Armitstead in Oslo

08, Apr, 2019 @3:07 PM

Article image
Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen review – a magical misery tour
These 18 spectacular paintings, most in Britain for the first time, capture the speed of Munch’s evolution from breezy pastiche to masterly melancholy

Laura Cumming

29, May, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst review – shattering despair for all to see
In his paintings and especially his wildly experimental prints, the bereft, Munch created a universal language of despair

Laura Cumming

14, Apr, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Edvard Munch ‘reunited’ with fiancee for British Museum show
Portrait was sawn in half by the artist after he was shot in a bedroom scuffle

Vanessa Thorpe

07, Apr, 2019 @6:03 AM

Article image
Master of misery: Edvard Munch at Tate Modern – in pictures

From paintings of vampires, deathbeds and murder sites to self-doubting self-portraits, Edvard Munch dedicated his life to depicting grisly scenes. Here is a selection of works from the man behind The Scream

25, Jun, 2012 @5:45 PM

Article image
Edvard Munch: Love and Angst review – 'Ripples of trauma hit you like a bomb'
From his sunsets and deathbeds to the world-warping Scream, the Norwegian created apocalyptic masterpieces that are brutal, refined – and addictive

Jonathan Jones

08, Apr, 2019 @11:00 PM

Article image
Strange bedfellows: how Edvard Munch and Jasper Johns painted sex and death
In works 40 years apart, both titled Between the Clock and the Bed, the two great artists handled humanity’s twin concerns. A new show teases out the similarities

Maev Kennedy

24, Jun, 2016 @3:26 PM

Article image
‘Finland’s Munch’: the unnerving art of Helene Schjerfbeck
One of her country’s most celebrated artists, Schjerfbeck is little known in the UK, but now her singular paintings will be seen in a major exhibition

Kate Kellaway

06, Jul, 2019 @2:00 PM

Article image
Tracey Emin/Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul review – a meeting of primal screamers
Emin’s ability to evoke suffering is brought to full expression in this visceral pairing with the Norwegian painter

Tim Adams

06, Dec, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Peter Duggan's Artoons – Edvard Munch

Cartoonist Peter Duggan places us at the birth of an expressionist masterpiece: it's Norway, 1893, and Munch has just wandered into the wrong group therapy session ...

07, Dec, 2011 @3:41 PM