Fear and Art

Upon his death in 1944, at the age of 80, the authorities discovered—behind locked doors on the second floor of his house—a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 lithographic stones, woodcut blocks, copperplates and photographs.

Edvard Munch began life immersed in circumstances that explain the abject fear that characterized his behavior and his art. His mother died in 1868 “leaving Edvard, who was 5, his three sisters and younger brother in the care of her much older husband, Christian, a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism. Edvard’s deepest affection resided with Sophie, his oldest sister. Her death at age 15 lacerated him for life.” 

His mother and Sophie had died of tuberculosis which Edvard also suffered from. With Sophie gone Edvard could not expect from his father the kind of support that would allay his fears. “His father’s expressed preference for the next world (an alarming trait in a physician) only amplified the son’s sense of death’s imminence. ‘I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity—illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.’”

With his mother and older sister dead from a disease which he also had, one sister later institutionalized for mental illness, and his younger brother’s death from pneumonia at age 30, Edvard had little reason to be an optimist. And that was not all. “Though he lacked his father’s faith in God, he had nonetheless inherited his sense of guilt.” 

An artist will use the dominant energy at hand in the creative process. For Edvard Munch that energy was fear. “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” The goal of the false self is to maintain control of human mind or else it would lose the source of its own energy. In the case of Munch, we can see that his false self exercised that control with a vengeance.

His false self would not allow intimate relationships and Munch managed to push away the only woman who tried to love him. The compulsive creation of art would be his only mistress and fear his only companion. Edvard Munch lived in a past burdened by shame and guilt and a future plagued with neurotic fear and anxiety. He could not find the correct answer to the “Einstein question.”

Albert Einstein was reputed to have said that a human being has to know the answer to only one question: Is the universe friendly? The circumstances of his life influenced Munch to answer that question in the negative and the inevitable consequence of his answer was a fear-driven life.  The correct answer recognizes that we live in a friendly universe which banishes the kinds of delusion that plagued Munch. The inability to feel reality as it really is robs us of the context of a healthy and nourishing narrative. Our story becomes dark, gloomy and phobic. We live in a hell of our own making, and one that few people are able to transcend.

One of America’s greatest leaders had at least a partial understanding of the toxic nature of fear. During the traumatic Great Depression FDR told the American people: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  We would add, the only thing we have to fear, is the illusion of fear itself. FDR’s appeal was to call the American people to wake up to the debilitating effects of fear and to believe in themselves as he had had to do with his challenging bout with polio. Had he been contained in a more profound story FDR might well have been saying that humanity has always had the opportunity to awaken to the infinite possibilities of living in a friendly universe; to realize that all obstacles to human Self-realization are the result of being caught up in the same kind of terrifying dream that contained Edvard Munch.

Another aspect of the thoughts that preoccupied Munch was the influence of the Swedish Dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912). Strindberg’s plays revealed a misogynistic aspect of his worldview. The antagonism between the sexes concerned Strindberg in all of his works. We can see in Strindberg a paranoia that emanates from the power and control energy center of his false self. “In this collection of short stories [Married, 1884] dealing with the husband-wife relationship, Strindberg is scornful of the ‘emancipated’ woman, believing that such a woman wants not equality with her mate but domination over him. The ideal role for the woman, Strindberg believes, is that of wife and mother—anything else can only be destructive.”   

The early life experiences of Munch and Strindberg were similar and explain their inability to establish healthy relationships with women. “Having been unwanted at birth and rejected as a child, Strindberg grew up as a stranger in his own home. Thus, what Strindberg sought in a mate (he went through three stormy marriages) was not only a wife but also a substitute mother.”  Munch undoubtedly was looking for a substitute for his mother and Sophie in his relationships with women. The next paragraph is a good description of the paradigm that Munch entered as he fled to Paris to escape his father’s religious fanaticism.

“Strindberg’s disillusion led him naturally into bitter antifeminism. Actually, his philosophy paralleled that of many contemporaries, particularly those in France—a country he frequented during ‘exile’ periods. The literary atmosphere there in the 1870s was extremely misogynistic. In the theater, the character of the femme fatale, as popularized by such actresses as Sarah Bernhardt, was popular. The female was seen as a parasitic being who lived off of the productivity of the more talented and imaginative male.” 

Now let’s look at several of Munch’s paintings that illustrate the attitude that he and Strindberg shared and that caused them both a good deal of suffering. First the Madonna (1895) communicating both a religious ecstasy and an eroticism at the same time. The art critic, David Piper is aware of the Munch/Strindberg connection and associates it with Strindberg’s poem “Our Lady of Pain.” “In a later lithograph Munch added an embryo, cowering as if in fear of the life into which he must be born.” 

Next, we have Strindberg himself commenting on Munch’s painting Vampire (1895). “Strindberg found expressed here his view of woman as the seductress and destroyer of man: ‘A rain of blood flows in torrents over the accursed head of him who seeks the misery, the divine misery, of being loved—or rather, of loving.’” 

The third painting of that same year (1895) entitled Puberty, shows a young nude girl shyly covering herself while next to her is a menacing shadow symbolizing her “growing feminism” according to the critic David Piper. To whom is this shadow a menace? To the girl or to Munch or men in general? Perhaps to all as long as they are contained in and informed by a worldview in which men and women are engaged in an ego-dominated struggle.

What is that struggle? “Freud and Munch had never heard of one another, but they shared one great insight: that the [false] self is a battleground where the irresistible force of desire meets the immovable object of social constraint. Each person’s fate can then be seen as at least a possible example to others, because it contains the forces common to all fettered, lusting social animals.”  Actually, for Munch the universal conflict was between the false self [the id] and Freud’s superego.

A painful childhood had helped set up the struggle that was to define his life as a man and as an artist. “His father was a ranting religious bigot, his mother a submissive wreck; his beloved sister Sophie died of tuberculosis, and, as he put it later, ‘Disease and insanity were the black angels on guard at my cradle. In my childhood I felt always that I was treated in an unjust way, without a mother, sick, and with threatened punishment in Hell hanging over my head.’”  Indeed, in his Self-Portrait in Hell (1895) Munch gazes out at the observer from inside the inferno of his tormented mind, an archetypal false self in P-B.

Adding Strindberg’s influence to that of his experience with his family explains why Munch was a neurotic who sympathized with those around him but found it difficult to develop relationships with them. “Munch was all but unable to think of women as social beings. He saw them as elemental forces, either vampires or Ur-mothers, implacable fertility idols. Munch believed that sex was, in all senses but that of procreation, inherently destructive—a notion borne out by the fate of his two surviving sisters, one of whom went mad and the other permanently frigid as the result of unhappy love affairs in the early 1890s. Sexual awakening is ominous and hateful: such was the message of Munch’s Puberty, 1894, with its gooseflesh girl perched on the bed, covering her sex in a gesture of awkward fright while her own shadow rears on the wall behind her like a swollen phallus.”

In the 1890s, Munch belonged to a group of Norwegian writers and painters who were later called the Norwegian Symbolists and who shared his fear of women. “The same tensions caused by the prospective emancipation of women that lent Ibsen’s and Strindberg’s dramas so much of their anxiety were also present in Munch, but he was able to express them with an even more cathartic intensity.”

His dark worldview permeated Munch’s experience of life in general and was, of course, expressed in his art. “My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm’s edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.”

Munch used his art to express compassion for his fellow human beings; he knew they suffered as he did. “The characters in his future painting, Munch wrote in 1889 (he was then twenty-six), ‘should be living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love.’” 

“Some of Munch’s most affecting paintings are those in which he tried to close the gap between the Self and the Other. Thus in The Voice, 1893, the figure of the girl is caught between repression and the desire to speak. Her rigid stance is amplified by the strict verticals of the Åsgårdstrand trees:  she leans forward as though timidly offering herself, while her arms are stiffly pinioned behind her in a gesture of inhibition; and the motive force of desire is represented (with unusual subtlety, by Munch’s standards) in the phallic shaft of light reflected on the water from the low arctic sun.”

Piper thinks Munch’s masterpieces are a series of 22 painting with the general title The Frieze of Life. Exhibited in Berlin in 1902, “These, in their power, both formal and emotive, to convey fin de-siècle disillusion and a sense of man as a victim.”  And indeed, many of us like Munch, are a victim of our own false-self identity in pursuit of and simultaneously fleeing from a dark illusion

We can now better understand the source of one of modern art’s most iconic images of neurosis, The Scream. In Munch’s own words: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city on one side, the fiord below. I felt tired and ill. The sun was setting and the clouds turning blood-red. I sensed a scream passing through Nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked.” 

“Can only have been painted by a madman,” Munch wrote in the upper part of the picture. This painting depicts the devastating “split” between nature and humanity, the beginning of humankind’s descent into P-B.

Many people may think of Munch as a “one-painting” artist, but as the introductory paragraph makes clear, that is far from the case. He was one of the art world’s most prolific artists and as he himself understood, this production was a result of his horrific suffering. The Scream is a self-portrait but also a portrayal of universal human suffering, a portrait of the face of humanity expressing the human condition. It also expresses a plea made by humanity to itself: “For mercy’s sake, please awaken from this nightmare.”

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry. 

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