His religious father disapproved of his decision to leave engineering school to practice painting in his late teens and tried to divert his son from this “unholy trade” until his death in 1889, which left the Munch family impoverished. Much analysis of Munch’s work has been dictated by these personal turns, as well as by his breakdown in 1908—which landed him in clinical therapy—and his subsequent recovery.
The problem with an interpretation of Munch’s work that wholly privileges his biography is that such a reading runs the risk of projecting pop psychology onto it, rather than considering it as a broader psychological study of the human mind.
Munch was indeed a particularly tortured individual, at least in certain phases of his life. But he was also a thinking artist and intellectual who inhabited a fin-de-siècle moment where many of his fellow artists and cultural figures believed they were either living at the end of times or needed to drastically rethink human nature.
The age of Freud and psychoanalysis
Considering that Munch was of a generation with Sigmund Freud and the first rumblings of psychoanalysis, and that he too understood the power of subjective experience and the irrational forces of the mind, a more developed picture shows Munch as a diagnostician of the internal human condition who was well-educated on the artistic and intellectual trends of his time.
Munch’s early work, for example, was lighter in tone than his mature work and was largely influenced by the French
of the 1870s and 1880s. Though he would move on to darker subjects in the latter half of the 1880s, he was extremely prolific and continued painting bright landscapes and milder portraits of family members and friends throughout his career.