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Edvard Munch and Death

20th century

Edvard Munch and Death

“Illness, madness and death were the black angels that watched over my cradle and have since followed me through life,” Munch wrote in his notes, almost as an explanation for all the death-related motifs that were to form a large, significant part of his pictorial world. He presented death literally, in the series of images of his mother and sister, and metaphorically, as a skeleton who is usually dominated by even more evil women.  Scenes of life and death, love and terror, the feeling of loneliness – all these were depicted by the contrasting lines, the darker colors, blocks of color, somber tones, and a concise and exaggerated form, which depicted the darker side of the art which he was designing. We found the most horrifying depictions of death from Munch’s oeuvre.

1. By The Death Bed

Edvard Munch, By the Death bed (Fever), 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo

Edvard Munch, By the Death Bed (Fever), 1896, Munch Museum, Oslo

Munch had two close encounters with death in his childhood, which left a huge mark on his life. Edvard’s mother died of tuberculosis in 1868, and so did Munch’s favorite sister Johanne Sophie in 1877.  It left ineradicable traces on his soul, but it also laid a foundation for a number of his major works.

2. Death at the Helm

Edvard Munch, Death at the Helm, 1893 ,The Munch Museum, Oslo;

Edvard Munch, Death at the Helm, 1893 , Munch Museum, Oslo

This painting is exceptional among the other depicting death. The skeleton is calmly sitting at the helm of the old man’s boat. It steers his life like and the lives of the men in the boats from the second plan – steers to inexorable deadly destiny.

3.Under the Stars

Edvard Munch, Under the Stars, 1900-1905, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Edvard Munch, Under the Stars, 1900-1905, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Munch believed that woman symbolized man’s loss of power as she had come out of him, as a “vampire” that sucked the vitality out of him. Here a woman, who looks like death, is probably trying to suck the life of a powerless man.

4. The Woman and the Skeleton

Edvard Munch, The Woman and the Skeleton, 1896, private collection

Edvard Munch, The Woman and the Skeleton, 1896, private collection

The inspiration for this kind of motifs Munch found in the literary community in Berlin, which was dominated by August Strindberg and Stanisław Przybyszewski. This can be a kind of variation on the theme “dance of death”, dating from the late Middle Ages. It showed a procession or dance of the living and the dead and usually meant death’s presence in life and its power over human life.

5. Death of Marat

Edvard Munch, Death of Marat, 1907, Munch Museum, Oslo

Edvard Munch, Death of Marat, 1907, Munch Museum, Oslo

From 1899 Munch had an intimate relationship with a “liberated” upper-class woman, Tulla Larsen. This stormy relationship lasted until 1902, when Munch injured two of his finger during accidental shooting in the presence of Larsen, who had returned to him for a brief reconciliation. She finally left him and married a younger colleague of Munch. Munch felt betrayed and painted two different compositions with The Death of Marat where he wanted to show female perfidy. The story of Marat’s murder by Charlotte Corday in my opinion bears no resemblance to that of Munch and Tulla Larsen, but evidently it was enough for Munch’s symbol-stretching mind. We can see a nude Munch lying on a bed, blood dripping from his wounded hand, which is equivalent to Marat dying in his bath, and a nude Tulla, an erect frontal figure with her accomplished deed behind her, for the upright packing-case in David’s picture.

6. Death and the Maiden

Edvard Munch, Death and the Woman, 1894, private collection

Edvard Munch, Death and the Maiden, 1894, private collection

Edvard Munch completed this engraving in 1894, one year after the original oil painting. Here, Death is a skeleton; no flesh covers it anymore. In this work, Munch does not conform to traditional representations of the theme that reaches the 15th century. At the beginning of the Renaissance, Death was often represented in a sexually aggressive way. In this engraving, Munch suggests a victory of Love over Death: the girl is not dominated by Death, she embraces it with passion.

7. Kiss of Death

Edvard Munch, Kiss of Death, 1899, private collection

Edvard Munch, Kiss of Death, 1899, private collection

In this work, the young girl looks similarly to the one previously shown in Death and the Maiden. Her long hair covers the neck and the shoulders of Death, who sweetly kisses her cheek. She, however, remains indifferent to him and looks away with forlorn eyes. Once again, the maiden seems to dominate her partner.

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