Illness and anxiety came early in Munch’s life — his mother died of tuberculosis when he was five and his beloved sister, Sophie, followed in 1877. The double tragedy profoundly affected Munch’s father, a military doctor and fundamentalist Christian, who thereafter suffered from religious visions and fits of depression. ‘I was born dying,’ Munch later said. ‘Sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.’ From this extraordinary background, Munch would produce an intense Expressionist art of inner turmoil that would have a huge influence on generations of artists that followed.
Raised in rural Norway, Munch studied art in Kristiania (now Oslo) where he became involved with the Kristiania Bohème, a group of artists and intellectuals seeking new modes of artistic expression and libertarian living. Munch’s early works, though deeply introspective in timbre, were nevertheless influenced by the techniques of Impressionism. Canvases such as The Sick Child (1885–86), a work that recollected his sister’s death, were badly received in conservative Norway and in the mid-1880s he began visiting Paris, where he became captivated by the works of Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh.
Munch painted early masterpieces like Night in Saint-Cloud (1890) in Paris, but his mature style emerged only after his move to Berlin in 1892. Within three years he had created some of his most important paintings, from The Scream (1893) and Madonna (1893–94) to Puberty (1895). He also turned to printmaking, becoming a prolific maker of etchings, lithographs and woodcuts — producing as many as 30,000 impressions in his lifetime. Munch’s stark, uncompromising depictions of sexuality and melancholy caused a scandal and his first solo exhibition in Berlin closed in the face of public censure. But scandal drew publicity, and by the time he returned to Paris in 1896 Munch was a famous artist.
Munch suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908 and retreated to the bucolic Norway of his childhood, where he would live for the rest of his life. Hitler later condemned his work as ‘degenerate’, and his paintings were removed from German museums. When Munch died in 1944, it was in a Norway that had been under Nazi occupation for four years.