Before reading Edvard Munch’s private journals, I had little knowledge of the artist. I hadn’t even seen much of his art, apart from his ubiquitous work The Scream, which I assume most would be familiar with. The image of a man standing on a bridge overlooking a fjord, with his hands clasped to his head in horror as the sky glows red above him, is said to express the encompassing ‘scream’ of humanity.
On reflection, Munch writes of his inspiration for the famous piece saying, “It was a time when life had ripped my soul open.” Now when I see the image on postcards, coffee mugs and shopping bags, I wonder if Munch would be amused at its prolificacy in popular culture.
Visual art aside, Munch is a gifted writer; once declaring he should have been one from the start. His journal entries blend fact and fiction, often making it difficult to separate the ‘real’ from the ‘imagined’. He writes short poetic prose and often stops mid-sentence; however, the economy he adopts with words he more than compensates for in imagery and expression. I found his writing not dissimilar to his visual art: incredibly raw, visceral and primal. The entries are peppered with references to the physical body, of blood, the heart and life force.
He pays much attention to psychology; oscillating between the uplifting effect of joy on the psyche, together with the impact of deadening grief. Munch describes life at its truest and basest form. This is not always pretty but something tells me he’s not too interested in ‘pretty’. Instead, he chooses to highlight the most elemental emotions in his own experiences and those of others. Along with the entries, there are some illustrations with notes.
Munch’s entries, although powerful, hint at his own fragility. He suffered the death of family members at a very young age (his mother and sister died when he was a child) and was admitted, intermittently, into rehabilitation clinics for the treatment of alcoholism and nervous disorders. On losing his family, he writes, “I live with the dead – my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father – every memory, the smallest things come up.”
Not only was there devastating loss in his personal life, but he also struggled within the art world. On an exhibition in Berlin, he writes, “I had an exhibition at Blomqvist’s – It was a series of my later pictures. The usual scandal: call for police. Call for boycott of Blomqvist’s rooms.”
Munch writes of his friendship with fellow Norwegian, playwright Henrik Ibsen, for whom he eventually did some artwork. He has his own ‘celebrity moment’ on meeting Ibsen. He writes with all the fervor of a teenage fan, “Something never dreamed of before happened… he crossed through the guests and towards us! There he sat in our midst… he said something – usual politenesses – and left. We all sat there… Ibsen at our table!”
Munch’s journals are not only a must-read for diehard fans, but also for those who are curious about the man behind the art. A keen observer of life, he sought to express his ideas in more than just one medium.
In his own words, “My art is a self-confession. In it, I seek to understand what terms the world and I are on.”
Book Review by Annette Ong