Up close and personal
Lisa Appignanesi examines the link between Munch’s visceral self-portraits and psychoanalysis and looks at how his paintings evoke a troubled inner landscape
Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I try to dissect souls – Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch’s assertion of his own principles of painting places him in a lineage of the greats. He is the proud descendant of Leonardo. But his words also evoke those of another grand dissector who was his near contemporary: Sigmund Freud. Freud talked about dissecting our mental apparatus, our psychic and ‘mental’ personality, our dreams and, yes, the soul – a term which for him was interchangeable with the psyche as the basis of psychoanalysis.
Like Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, Munch is his own primary subject. Even where the canvas seems to be depicting others, he is often there offering us a version of himself to interpret. Perhaps only Rembrandt before him was as interested in the self-portrait. But to put them side by side immediately illuminates a difference that is not simply one of style.
Over the years, charted by his self-portraits, Rembrandt evokes varying aspects of character and the process of ageing itself. We might even infer from these portraits with their luxuriant brushwork, their play of light and shadow, that like the Renaissance essayist Montaigne, Rembrandt knew very well that the human subject was hardly ‘one invariable and solid fabric’. Montaigne wrote that ‘Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice’:
I give my soul this face or that, depending upon which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending upon some twist or attribute: timid, insolent, chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull, brooding, affable; lying, truthful; learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal – I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgement this whirring about and this discordancy.
But Montaigne’s fluctuating, discordant self, nonetheless constitutes a character. There is no radical anxiety at its base which fractures and torments it with the sense of impending breakdown. So, too, the self Rembrandt paints faces the viewer at least with the confidence of meeting a like mind. Observation itself constitutes a kinship, a sense of a world where the very fact of ‘others’ provides no threat.
With Munch, we have entered a different scheme of things. For all that they exist on a visual plane, Munch’s portraits are evocations of the invisible. The self here is always and ever primarily the inner self of moods and emotions, of desire and anxiety, of occasional hope and, more often, terror. It is not simply that Munch – like so many of his fellow modernists, whether post-impressionist, expressionist or fauve – was responding to the advent of the camera. His response had a particularity he shared perhaps most closely only with Schiele, that other serial self-portraitist of the time.
‘The camera cannot compete with brush and canvas,’ Munch noted, ‘as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell.’ Munch’s heaven and hell is an inner world of extreme states: love is inextricably bound up with death; sex is bloodsucking terror or disease or jealousy or murder. The soul he dissects, the lonely, agonised self he evokes, is that of the exception. Like Freud’s patients, it constitutes a case. And Munch’s case is most often his own. He is tortured lover, enemy of the people, tormented genius. He uses canvas and paper as the couch on which his haunted inner world is worked over and revealed at each stage of his troubled life – from a childhood punctuated by death, through violent affairs redolent of Strindbergian sex wars, to bouts of depression, alcoholism and breakdown.
Yet his exceptionality captured on canvas, the very extremity he paints into being, seems to threaten us all. (Is it coincidental that The Scream is the most often stolen of images?) His self-analysis in paint draws us in as analysts who are also, as Baudelaire would have put it, his semblables, his spiritual kin. Munch invokes us to replace the more traditional relationships of self-portraiture. Peter Watkins’s extraordinary film about the artist, part documentary and part re-enactment of a tormented family romance, is perhaps the responsive feat that Munch asks of us all.
None of this is to postulate an influence from Freud to Munch or the other way around. Freud was a mere seven years older than Munch. A zeitgeist embraced them, one that even took them both to Paris in 1895 – which was also the year of Freud’s Studies on Hysteria. This spirit of the time included an emphasis on the family and its discontents; on the hypocrisies of puritanism at war with an important sexuality itself tainted with the dangers of syphilis; on the dissatisfactions of women and their growing independence; on a religious centre that could no longer hold since the world had been abandoned by God; on trains and speed, which might make travel easier, but brought in their wake radical displacements – in short, all the traits of modernity. Both of them learned from Ibsen – Freud wrote about Rosmersholm; Munch, whose first scandal-rousing Berlin exhibition was described in the show’s advance publicity as ‘Ibsenesque mood painting’, designed sets for Berlin performances of Ghosts and Hedda Gabler in 1906, and later drew himself as the eponymous hero of Ibsen’s play, John Gabriel Borkman. Of the philosopher Nietzsche, another key figure in Munch’s intellectual formation, Freud said he had ‘a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived’.
Salome Paraphrase, 1894-98, by Edvard Munch
Salome Paraphrase, 1894-98, by Edvard Munch
Munch’s early self-portraits quickly move away from skilled naturalism. By 1886, his register is already expressive, the paint and skin breaking up, the eyes focusing on some inner world. In the mid-1890s, the portraits take on the motifs that will become repetitive, variations on themes that will not leave him alone. Munch is haunted by death in the form of skeletal arms and severed heads: sometimes this is his own head sacrificed to a Salome who embraces him with sexualised hair or the face of a brazen red-lipped mask, a harpy who stands over his manhood. Salome can also take the shape of a lascivious vampire kissing the passive Munchian male to death, like some sexualised mother. It would not be far-fetched to link these images to Munch’s childhood, plagued by his own illness and calamity: a mother who died of TB when he was just five and left him at the mercy of a disciplinary and, by all accounts, religiously obsessed father; a beloved sister, a year older than him, who died at the age of fifteen, just as he was making his way through puberty.
Loss, sexual awakening linked to death, the unreliability and horror of women together with their profound desirability, all of these experiences are already in place before Munch begins his painting life. No wonder he so often splits his women into three – death or fate, in the guise of the dark-clad mother; the desirable ‘whore’, sometimes naked, sometimes in red; and the sister in innocent white – while his male stand-in is paralysed, impotent or on a cross.
In a sense, Munch’s most notorious image, The Scream, is a painterly distillation of all his early motifs transformed into an evocation of metaphysical terror. The head at once skull and embryo, encased by hands that shape and embrace it like Salome’s tresses; the sky and bridge, blood-red like vampire’s hair; the distant, uncaring top-hatted figures; the bridge that is a crossing to nowhere – all of these elements combine to make a portrait of a lonely nobody who is both artist and Everyman. In the background to this silent scream, one can almost hear the agonised sounds of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.
Munch’s love affairs always had Strindbergian resonances: the first with the wife of his cousin provoked jealousy and despair; the second with Tulla Larsen ended in a Hedda Gabler-like shooting. Her threat of suicide became a struggle in which he shot off part of one finger and injured his left hand. The emotional course of the affair is rendered in a sequence of images in which Tulla’s dangerous, desirable enigma is converted into the picture of a murderess, an impassive and naked Charlotte Corday, who leaves the male, recognisably a self-portrait, bleeding from hand and heart. Munch called this picture their child. Just before it, in 1906, he had painted one of his great works: Self-portrait with a Bottle of Wine (opposite). The artist here sits in the foreground of the picture, his troubled head, larger than life and encircled in red, rises amid shrouded tables, which have the aura of coffins. Two figures standing back to back, like emanations of inner turmoil, grow out of the artist who stares at us with an air of resigned despair.
In 1908, a year after he had painted his Marat sequence and six years after the affair with Tulla Larsen was over in life if not in mind, Munch checked himself into a Copenhagen psychiatrist’s clinic. Despite his ranking as a major European artist, in his own estimation his breakdown was connected to the persecution he suffered in Norway because of his art. Certainly his heavy drinking, the difficulty of his relations with Tulla, which he couldn’t put behind him, and his depression all played their part as well: already in 1899 he had withdrawn to a sanatorium. Recovering from a mixture of treatments, which included the electricity Strindberg so vividly described as persecuting him, Munch painted himself in the asylum using a series of vivid, hard-edged brushstrokes that contrast almost painfully with his rigid, suited figure.
In the subsequent years up to and during the First World War, the number of self-portraits seem to increase. It is as if Munch needs to pull himself and his style together to find new points of departure in terms of picture plane, perspective and posture. In these portraits one almost feels a centred existence returning – the soul here inhabits a man in hat and coat, waiting for action in a visible world.
But the action in the wings, the one that charges his canvases with a new burst of motion and depth, is illness. Painting himself with Spanish flu, then with bronchitis and in convalescence, Munch produces some of his greatest work. In these canvases, created in his late fifties, experimentation never ceases and Munch manages to convey a rare combination of fragility and strength. The emotion here has less terror than his early canvases. Yet the tragedy of life is more poignant. And this late flowering of self-portraiture in a manner which reminds one a little of that other Freud – Lucian – continues until the very end, when a thin naked man poised on a red blotch of carpet looks out at us defiantly.
The soul has been dissected, the extremes of emotion suffered, and from somewhere in that journey a survivor’s boldness has emerged. The fractures of modernity and psyche seem somehow, through analysis in paint, to have ended up with someone who looks remarkably like character rather than a case – a being who can act in the world and upon himself, rather than serve as a subject for extreme states in search of treatment.
Edvard Munch by Himself, Main Galleries and The Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 1 Oct–11 Dec
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