The point of no return: The importance of “The Sick Child” painting in Edvard Munch’s artwork.

Edvard Munch, 1889 [1]

Edvard Munch (Ådalsbruk, Norway, 1863 – Ekely, Norway, 1944) is certainly the most influential figure in the History of Nordic fine arts. His particular style, which swings from of the “European trends” to the Norwegian national style, is the reason why this artist is considered a figure of historical significance.

His work, worldwide known for representing of anxiety, distress and disease (and the loneliness all these produce), is an essential chapter in any manual of Contemporary Art History.

In 1915 Nielsen Laurvik praised Munch’s work in the catalog of the exhibition “Scandinavian Art at the Panama-Pacific”, held in San Francisco: “His independence inwardly encouraged others. Revolutionary, original and disturbing, he occupies in the Norwegian art a position analogous to that of Ibsen in Norwegian literature: both found similar recognition. Accepted and known abroad as one of the greatest artists of the modern era, he is rejected and despised by most of his countrymen who only see madness and perversion on his masterfully revelations of the soul’s truth[2].

Only his friend and teacher Christian Krohg defended him: “He paints, or rather regards, things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason Munch’s pictures are as a rule “not complete”, as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. Oh, yes, they are complete. His complete handiwork. Art is complete once the artist has really said everything that was on his mind, and this is precisely the advantage Munch has over painters of the other generation, that he really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else”.[3]

Provided this aesthetic excision with Oslo artistic circles and the subsequent huge international receptivity of his work, we wonder which are the influences absorbed by him were, unlike other Norwegian contemporaries, and the paths taken to reach this original and unique paradigm: the expressionism.

There seems to be a key work to find the origin of this creative journey, between the dissociation of what he learned in the workshop of Christian Krohg[4] and his visceral work. According to his own testimony[5], the origin of his most personal work, emerged during his first visit to the Paris Salon in 1885 and materialized on a work made the same year, “The Sick Child“.

After that trip to Paris, where he met in The Salon the most advanced painting movements and felt particularly attracted to Gauguin’s art, his work evolved from naturalism to symbolism and, finally, to his own style: expressionism. The influence of this artist is evident in his early works, but we can also recognize some interest in Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and Whistler, among others, in the simplicity of form and the use of unconventional colors.

In addition to style influences, Munch’s work cannot be explained without the psychological references [6]. The early loss of his mother and his sister Sophie, due to tuberculosis, during his childhood and adolescence marked and influenced his life forever. Munch’s artistic expression describes this experience of pain, death, loneliness, anguish and decrepitude. Paintings like “The Sick Child” with obsessive repetitions and versions, demonstrate the deep and unavoidable impact these events had on his being.[7]

When Munch’s early works reflecting his intense personal pain, such as “The Sick Child”, were exhibited in Kristiania, the unashamedly raw application of the paint and the ‘unfinished’ quality caused a storm of protests from the press and public. Despite this initial hostile response, his one-man exhibition in 1889, which was more optimistic in tone and featured a monumental portrait of Hans Jaeger, secured him the first of a series of state scholarships which allowed him to study in France for three years.

The Sick Child” is a sad freeze-frame from Edvard’s life in which he portrays the moment before his sister died of tuberculosis in 1877. The devastating psychological effect of losing a loved one is intensely revealed in Munch’s obsession with this painting: first painted in 1885, he often returned to this image, painting it many times, until 1926. His fixation with the scene shows the deep impact this event had on his psychological state, and how it continued to affect him throughout his life. Munch described the painting as a ‘breakthrough’, writing ‘That picture […] provided the inspiration for the majority of my later works’[8]. Perhaps this breakthrough was his ability to express his sister’s death with pure emotion on a canvas. He describes this time of his life: ‘I could not believe that death was so inevitable, so near at hand […] Was she really going to die?[9]. Although his words portray a sense of his hurt and confusion at the prospect of death, they do not fully communicate his feelings. However, it appears that Munch could paint what he could not describe.

The Sick Child” is like a page from a diary, full of emotion and sentiment. Each version that Munch painted depicts the same scene: a pale, sick child with her carer, the woman so overcome with sadness that she cannot look at the girl. The dark colours reflect the sombre mood and maybe even give a clue to Munch’s developing depression. As his breakthrough came with such a personal painting, it shows the profound effect that his psychological state, in this case depression, had on his art. [10]

Time after of that “breakthrough”, while studying in Paris and in Nice in the south of France, Munch was influenced by the Impressionists’ fascination with light and by the growing Symbolist movement which inspired his symbolic use of colour and simplification of form. He saw the work of Gauguin and van Gogh, whose “Starry Night” he paid tribute to in his own painting of the same name thirty years later. These influences, together with the curving, sweeping lines of Art Nouveau, were rapidly melded into his highly individual style.

With regard to his style and the movements his work responds to, he said: “I began as an Impressionist but it was limited and I had to find another way of expressing the emotional turmoil I experienced during that Bohemian period of my life … ‘The Sick Child’ was the first break from Impressionism. I was searching for expression.”[11] He refers again to this artwork as a milestone, a key break in his career, considering it like important and decisive to understand his arrival to expressionism.

The Sick Child, 1885 [Oil on canvas; 119.5 × 118.5 cm], National Museum, Oslo, Norway.

Somehow the quintessential expressionist artwork of Munch’s career, “The Scream” (1893), cannot be understood without considering to this work, “The Sick Child“. Both works were not well received by critics and were classified as “demented art”. Later, the Nazis classified Munch such as a “degenerate artist” and all the paintings he had at an exhibition in Germany were censored.

However, despite all the setbacks suffered by Munch and his work, after the II World War and especially the late twentieth century, the work of this Norwegian artist acquired a status of a cultural icon, particularly his painting “The Scream“. It appeared in 1961 as the cover of Time magazine[12] and was also used by mainstream artists like Andy Warhol[13]. For all this, Edvard Munch has been recognized as the leading exponent of modernist expressionism and creator of an essential chapter in the Universal Art History.

Cristina Fernández Crespo

Scandinavian Art, Architecture and Design´s course essay | 2015

University of Oxford

————

[1] PRIDEAUX, S (2005): Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.Yale University Press, p. 120.

[2] WERNER, A (1979): La obra gráfica de Edvard Munch, Dover Publications <http://www.bdigital.unal.edu.co/40826/1/12296-31445-1-PB.pdf&gt;

[3] EGGUM, A (1984): Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies, New York: C.N. Potter, pp. 52–53.

[4] More on the connections between Munch and Krohg in: “The visceral response” <http://www.theartstory.org/comparison-munch-edvard_1.htm&gt;

[5] “The Sick Child” has six versions in oil that Munch made of this subject, the first dating from 1885. Munch later wrote ‘In the sick child I opened for myself a new path – it was a breakthrough in my art. Most of what I have done since had its birth in this picture’. WILSON, S (1991): Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, p.122.

[6] CLARKE, J (2009): Becoming Edvard Munch: influence, anxiety, and myth. Yale University Press.

[7] http://www.scielo.cl/pdf/rmc/v141n6/art12.pdf

[8] WILSON, S (1991): Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, p.122.

[9] STANG, R (1977): Edvard Munch: The Man and His Art, Abbeville Press, p. 34.

[10] AZEEN, H (2015): The Art of Edvard Munch: a window onto a mind, BJPsych Advances , The Royal College of Psychiatrists <http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/medicine/student-staff/staff-and-student-achievements/docs/APT2015Azeem513.pdf&gt;

[11] Education Resources of the exhibition “Edvard Munch: The Frieze of Life”, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, <https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ngv_edures_edvardmunch.pdf&gt;

[12] <http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19610331,00.html&gt;

[13] PRIDEAUX, S (2005): Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, Yale University Press, p. 77.

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