Munch is my second biography in graphic novel form from SelfMadeHero, following on from a life of Agatha Christie that I reviewed last month. Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) is, of course, best known for The Scream, but I learned a lot more about his work through this striking visual tour curated by illustrator Steffen Kverneland. Much of the text accompanying Kverneland’s images is from authentic primary sources: Munch’s diaries and letters, his contemporaries’ responses to his art, and so on.
Munch’s mother died early in his life, and sickroom and deathbed scenes were to permeate his work. “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” he wrote. “A mother who died early – gave me the seed of consumption – a distraught father – piously religious, verging on madness – gave me the seeds of insanity.” His first solo show opened in Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1889. Three and a half years later scandal erupted when his exhibition in Berlin was closed down. The establishment disapproved of the Impressionist influence in his work and thought he showed a lack of artistic technique. As it turned out, having his show shut down was the best publicity he ever could have asked for.
Kverneland shows different incarnations of Munch’s most famous pieces, such as Madonna, The Girls on the Bridge and The Scream. He also traces the painter’s important relationships, such as his friendship with playwright August Strindberg and his pursuit of the various women who inspired his nudes. In 1895, the writer Sigbjørn Obstfelder gave a lecture on Munch’s art. His appreciation included the following:
As no other Norwegian painter, Munch has focused on essential questions – has caused the deepest subjects to quiver. Before, one painted landscapes and everyday life – Munch paints human beings in all their shapes – even the beastly human. He finds his subjects where the emotions are strongest. Munch is one of the genuine artists who can shift boundaries.
This is a visually remarkable book, with various styles coexisting sometimes on the same page. Sometimes Munch is portrayed like a superhero in a comic (often with a hugely exaggerated chin); other times the images are more like photographs or nineteenth-century portraits. Pen sketches alternate with color spreads in which red, orange, sepia and flesh tones and black dominate. Some of my most admired individual panels have angular faces drawn in almost kaleidoscopic fragments. Strindberg’s is the most frighteningly fractured face, with triangles and trapezoids emphasizing his angry expression.
There’s also a meta aspect to this work: Kverneland depicts his travels with his friend Lars Fiske to sites associated with Munch, again using everything from black-and-white sketches to color photographs. These were, I’m afraid, my least favorite parts of the book: the friends’ raunchy, booze-filled banter has not translated well, and the style of some of their scenes is among the most cartoon-ish.
“Munch had become a monk whose life was devoted to art” is one of the last lines of the graphic novel. It’s a nice summation of what has gone before – with that wordplay especially remarkable given that this is a work in translation. I haven’t come away with a particularly clear sense of the trajectory of Munch’s life, but that’s probably not the point of a deliberately splintered biography like this one.
Kverneland worked on the book for seven years. First published in 2013, it won Norway’s Brage Prize for Literature. This is the fourth installment in SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after Pablo, Vincent and Rembrandt. I can highly recommend it to you if you are already a fan of Munch’s work. However, if, like me, you look to graphic novels to also tell you a good story, you might come away slightly disappointed.
With thanks to the publisher, SelfMadeHero, for the free copy. Translated from the Norwegian by Francesca M. Nichols.
Note: I’m traveling until the 24th so won’t be responding to comments right away, but will be sure to catch up soon after I’m back. I always welcome your thoughts!