7 Things You Didn’t Know about Edvard Munch

Alina Cohen
Nov 28, 2017 10:15PM

Edvard Munch, Portrait of Freidrich Nietzsche, 1906. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Few artworks are more iconic than Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The painting’s central figure, a ghostly form with its mouth hanging open in horror, quickly became a symbol of modern malaise after it was first painted in 1893. The artist made three more versions by 1910, one of which would go on to sell for a record-breaking $119.9 million at Sotheby’s in 2012. But there’s more to Munch than that famous shriek. Born in 1863 near rural Løten, Norway, the artist enjoyed (or, perhaps more accurately, suffered through) a long and prolific career. With a major Munch exhibition currently on view at New York’s Met Breuer, here are seven things you probably didn’t know about the Norwegian painter.

His childhood was marked by tragedy.


Munch’s mother died from tuberculosis in 1868, when he was just five years old. His older sister, Sophia, died from the same disease nine years later. But this early distress didn’t deter him: Munch initially trained as an engineer at the Royal Technical College in Kristiania, dropping out after a year to become a painter instead. He studied at the Royal School of Art and Design in the same city, and in 1883 he made his debut at the local Industry and Art Exhibition. With encouragement from other artists and financial support from his community, he managed to exhibit in Antwerp and study in Paris in his early twenties—quickly establishing himself on the international scene.

Even then, his life was punctuated by death. The artist’s father, a military physician, passed away in 1889. No wonder, then, that much of Munch’s work often focused on loss. The Sick Child (painted in many versions, first in 1885) shows a woman kneeling at the bedside of a pale, red-haired girl, appearing to mourn an impending death. In The Dead Mother (also produced serially), a wan woman’s face protrudes from the bed sheets. A child, standing nearby, raises her hands to her head in what looks like despair or disbelief.

He had anarchist ties and friends in high places.

In 1886, Munch met philosopher and political activist Hans Jæger. As the leader of the Norwegian “Bohème,” Jæger fought against conventional morality and instead advocated for sexual freedom and individualism. While Munch didn’t write any political manifestos, as other artists of his time did, many of his works are similarly concerned with man’s isolation and cultural decline. From 1892 to 1896, Munch lived in Berlin. The city’s intellectual community—which included Swedish playwright August Strindberg and Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland—furthered his interest in exploring the joys and disappointments of love. In 1906, he even painted a posthumous portrait of famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose nihilist beliefs coincide with The Scream’s depiction of existential dread.    

He suffered a mysterious gunshot wound after a breakup.

Munch never married, and his love life was often tumultuous. In 1902, a relationship with young, wealthy Tulla Larsen ended with a gunshot wound to a finger on Munch’s left hand. The details surrounding the incident—who pulled the trigger? why?—are still unresolved. The relationship, however, had always been fraught. Larsen, who had met the artist in 1898, pursued Munch throughout Europe. He fled from her advances, and she doggedly followed. He refused to marry her. She threatened suicide. If far from healthy, the association provided the artist with plenty of material. Munch’s famous series of paintings about love and death, entitled The Frieze of Life, debuted at the Berlin Secession in 1902.

He may have been the first artist to take selfies.

Currently on view at New York’s Scandinavia House, “The Experimental Self” presents a selection of Munch’s photography. The artist bought his first camera in Berlin in 1902, probably a Kodak Bulls’-Eye No. 2. It’s no surprise that Munch, a persistent self-portraitist, often turned the camera on his face and body. He captured himself nude and clothed, in nature and society, in and out of focus. The photographs aren’t masterpieces, but rather amateur experiments in the form. In 1927, Munch bought a Pathé-Baby video camera and began to shoot home movies as well.

He was prolific, in more ways than one.

Edvard Munch
Madonna, 1895-1902
Modernism Inc.
Edvard Munch
The Kiss IV, 1902
Modernism Inc.

Munch produced more than 1,000 paintings and 4,000 drawings throughout this career. It’s an impressive output—but that number is dwarfed by the nearly 15,400 prints contained in his oeuvre. Munch created his first etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs in the mid-1890s. If prints were always a way to mass-produce art, Munch innovated by leaving a trace of his own hand. His flowing, imprecise line imbued the flat form with deep expression and feeling. His work inspired the German Expressionists that succeeded him, including Erich Heckel and Emil Nolde, to use printing for their own symbolic, psychological work.  

Munch also wrote extensively on what was perhaps his favorite subject: himself. He penned some 13,000 pages of autobiographical notes, novel and short story fragments, prose poems, correspondence, and meditations on art. Munch’s melancholy writings often focused on the same topics as many of his paintings: nature, isolation, and longing.

He was a major influence on Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.

As he did with the gunshot wound, Munch often turned the events of his life into provocative, widespread gossip. He curated his image in the way that Warhol—self-mythologist extraordinaire—later admired. Munch never shied away from the public eye, developing a reputation during his lifetime. In 1927, 17 years before Munch died, the National Galleries of Berlin and Oslo both mounted large-scale retrospectives of his work. Artists, Munch demonstrated, need not be appreciated posthumously.

If Warhol most applauded the artist’s life, Johns was more inspired by one particular work: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43). In this work, Munch depicts a man standing, literally, between a clock and a bed. Johns’s 1981 interpretation of the same name is an abstract, three-paneled work filled with a cross-hatch pattern that resembles the bedspread in the original.

His most famous work has been stolen—twice.

The Scream (in all its iterations) has twice been the victim of a heist. In 2004, thieves stole the 1910 version—along with another Munch masterpiece, Madonna—from Oslo’s Munch Museum in broad daylight. Another theft, in February 1994 from Oslo’s National Gallery, intersected with politics in an unexpected way: A Norwegian anti-abortion group took responsibility for the crime, promising to return the painting if an anti-abortion advertisement played on television. The offer was a bluff; that May, The Scream was recovered from a hotel undamaged.

Alina Cohen