If I was to mention the name Edvard Munch to most people they would automatically think of his famous painting entitled The Scream and although I will look at that masterpiece in a future blog, today I want to concentrate on his very poignant painting entitled Det syke barn (The Sick Child) which he completed in 1886. The version you see above is one he completed twenty years after he painted the original and is now to be found in the Tate Gallery, London. However I look more closely at the painting, I would like to delve into the early life of Munch and by so doing, it may give one an insight into the man and his paintings.
Edvard Munch was born on December 12th, 1863, on a farm, in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten, Norway. His father, Christian Munch, the son of a clergyman, was a military doctor, who in 1861 had married Laura Catherine Bjølstad, a woman half his age. The couple had two sons, Peter Andreas and Edvard and three daughters, Johanne Sophie, Laura Catherine and Inger Marie. In 1864, when Edvard was just one year old, the family moved to Kristiania (now known as Oslo) as his father had been offered the post of medical officer at the Akershus Fortress. In 1868, when Edvard was still not five years of age, his mother died of tuberculosis. Following her death the five children were brought up by their father and their aunt Karen. Edvard proved to be a sickly child, especially during the cold harsh Norwegian winters. He suffered from chronic asthmatic bronchitis and had several serious attacks of rheumatic fever and would often have to be kept off school and it was during these times when he was at home confined to his bed that Edvard developed a love of sketching. Whilst at home his father would tutor him in history and literature. There can be no doubt as to Christian Munch’s devotion to his children but there was a down-side to this dedication and attentiveness. Christian Munch was an extremely religious man. He was a orthodox Christian and a great believer and follower of pietism. The Pietist movement combined the Lutheranism of the time with the Calvinism emphasis on individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life. Edvard always remembered his father’s strict religious beliefs and in Sue Prideaux’s 2005 book on Munch entitled Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, she quotes Munch:
“…My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born…”
Edvard Munch, like his siblings had to suffer their father’s religious fanaticism and he would often tell them when they were naughty that their mother was looking down upon them and weeping with sadness at their behaviour. Combine his father’s behaviour with his own illnesses as a child and it is no wonder that young Edvard and some of his siblings experienced nightmares and death-like hallucinations. Death was never far away from Edvard. His favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, died of tuberculosis in 1877 when he was fourteen years old. One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with a mental illness at an early age and Edvard’s brother Andreas who was the only one of the children to marry, died a few months after his wedding. All this affected Edvard and in Arne Eggum’s 1984 biography of the artist, he quotes Munch as saying:
“…I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity…”
To supplement his meagre army pay, Christian Munch tried to set up in private practice but this failed and he and his children suffered a poverty-stricken lifestyle which made it necessary to move from home to home in ever worsening conditions. Many of Edvard Munch’s early drawings and watercolours were of the interiors of their various homes. In 1879 he followed his father’s wishes by entering the Technical College to become an engineer. However the illnesses Munch had suffered during his childhood continued and, as was the case with his time at school, he had frequent absences from the college due to his ailments. He fell so far behind in his studies that in the autumn of 1880 he left the college, deciding engineering was not for him. There was an entry in his diary of November 7th 1880:
‘….My decision is now namely to be a painter…”
In the following year he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design where he stayed for one year. He and a few of his fellow art students then set up and rented a studio in a building which housed other painters. One of these painters was the Norwegian artist, Christian Krohg, who offered to tutor these young aspiring painters. Krohg was a leading figure in the changeover from romanticism to naturalism, characterized by Norwegian art in this period. Edvard Munch exhibited his first painting at the end of 1883 at the Industry and Art Exhibition in Oslo.
In 1885 Munch received money to study for three weeks in Paris and the following year he began to work on today’s featured painting, The Sick Child.
My featured painting today by Munch was completed in 1886 when he was just twenty-three years of age and remains one of his most important works. Munch himself describe this work as “a breakthrough in my art” Munch created numerous versions of the painting and as I said at the beginning, the painting you see before you today is the fourth version, which he painted in 1907, and which is currently being exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London. In the painting, the central character is that of a stricken young girl propped up in bed by a thick white pillow and covered by a heavy blanket. She is dying of tuberculosis. Her red hair is tousled and uncombed. This is not just the death of any girl. This is the death of Edvard Munch’s elder sister, Johanne Sophie, who was dying slowly, in fever, often hallucinating, and begging for someone to rescue her from the jaws of death. Edvard was both distressed and terrified by his own helplessness. His father even with his medical knowledge could not do anything to save his daughter. In the eyes of young Edvard’s both God and his father were both guilty of letting Sophie die. From this time on, death became a constant companion in the young artist’s life and there can be no doubt that this early traumatic childhood experience influenced all of Munch’s art. Munch later, he said of this feeling:
“…Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life…”
This work of art is all about the fragility of life. As she lies back on the pillow the young girl seems to be focusing on the black drape at the right of the painting. Maybe Munch wanted to have us interpret this as her staring at death itself. Next to the bed of the dying girl we see a distraught female, clutching one of her hands in theirs, offering what little comfort she can at this heartrending time. Look how the supportive friend, who holds the hand of her dying friend, is affected by the situation. Her head is bowed and her eyes are averted from the face of the dying child. She cannot bear to witness the fear and suffering in the child’s eyes.
I have often said in earlier blogs that I wondered what was going through the artist’s mind when he or she was painting a certain picture. In this case we can almost feel the pain and the sadness of the artist as he portrayed his dying sister. Anybody who has suffered the loss of a family member must know what was going through Munch’s mind as he had to recall such a harrowing scene.
There is a history to this version of the painting. It was bought by the city of Dresden in 1928, where it was displayed in the city art gallery. Ten years later the Nazis regime declared that the art of Edvard Munch was ‘degenerate’ and, in November 1938, all his works in German public collections were collected in Berlin for sale by auction. Today’s featured painting and many others by Munch were rescued by a Norwegian art dealer, Harald Holst Halvorsen, who returned them safely to Oslo. The painting was then acquired by Thomas Olsen in 1939, who donated it to the Tate.
Were the critics as moved by this poignant painting when it was exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition in Kristiana in 1886? Alas the painting shocked the critics and the public alike and a storm of indignation and protest broke out. It is very important to try and understand the people’s hostile reaction; they were simply not accustomed to see this kind of painting. For them, art was still synonymous with beauty, harmony, good shape, and for them the sight of suffering, ugliness and pain in a painting was just not acceptable. Edvard Munch however was not put off by the condemnation and criticism. He came back to the painting time and time again over the following twenty years, re-painting it but never once toning down the sadness and the emotion which, I am sure you agree, makes it a beautiful and moving work of art. Death, illness and mental anguish were subjects that would from then on continue to figure significantly in Edvard Munch’s future paintings.