The principle of alternate emphasis
April 18, 2006
I'm laptopping you from the foyer of the Museum of Modern Art
in New York. I'm a bit depressed--it's the wet umbrellas
flooding in from 53rd Street, and the Edvard Munch retro, "The
Modern Life of the Soul," that I've just been upstairs to see.
Edvard Munch, International enigma and Norway's favourite son,
spent a great deal of his life checking in and out of clinics.
His problems were alcoholism, a variety of health issues and,
yep, depression. Inheriting the genes of mental instability, he
grew up in a religious family that he perceived to be loaded
with ignorance and guilt. In youth, he witnessed the deaths of
his mother, father and sister. A fellow artist noted, "his
religion is despair."
Munch attended various art schools in Kristiania (now Oslo) and
showed modest ability in academic art. His early works were
deemed "unfinished" by teachers and critics. Tellingly, Munch
admired the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin--a highly competent
symbolist who painted mysterious landscapes and the dark side
of the human soul.
Recognizing early on that he was a weak draftsman with a faulty
sense of form and a poor grasp of colour, Munch turned to the
principle of alternate emphasis. Misery was central to his life
and was to become the central message of his art. Scholarships
abroad and state support followed. Simplified forms,
compositional isolation and incomplete faces allowed him to
focus on the pure emotions of melancholy, loneliness, hysteria,
sickness, despair, grief and death. Skulls, blood and
Bocklinesque entanglement depicted the pointlessness of lust
and life. His early romances and skirmishes in free love led
only to anxiety. Munch lived a long, unsettled life and never
married. It's telling that his best known painting, "The
Scream," exhibited widely and well stolen, contains the words
"could only have been painted by a madman" penciled on it.
Munch never protested this defacement--though he could easily
have had it removed. While embarrassed by his shortcomings,
Munch allowed the graffiti to stand--it was part of his
In this MOMA show you can't miss the influences of Gauguin,
Whistler and the Impressionists. "Depressing and moving," I
heard someone say. I've asked Andrew to illustrate some of my
noted favourites in the current clickback. See URL below.
PS: "I have been given a unique role to play on this earth:
given to me by a life filled with sickness, ill-starred
circumstances and my profession as an artist. It is a life that
contains nothing that resembles happiness, and moreover does
not even desire happiness." (Edvard Munch)
Esoterica: Nevertheless, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) did have some
happiness. He relished awards and applause from many nations.
He was often written up and lauded by critics. Even negative
press gave him amusement. Financial success, together with
purifying bouts in health-camps, helped to make him right with
the world. His friends included the glitterati--Ibsen,
Strindberg, Gauguin--and loads of Royalty. Munch loved
literature. One of his favourites was Shakespeare: "All the
world's a stage."