Class relations and national identity were two thematic motifs regularly explored and emphasised within the oeuvre of Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944]. Primarily what needs to be addressed is why. Certain themes and trends can be identified, but why these themes and not others? Why did Munch repeatedly duplicate, for example, his notion of 'woman as a vampire', or his 'urban anxiety' motif? Why 'national identity' as a generic discourse when he could have just as easily echoed Gauguin's sentiments and thus only depicted scenes of indulgence and hedonism? Additionally, why was work on a heightened visual and aesthetic level - like Degas' portraits of country club racetracks and ballet dancers - of secondary importance to Munch in comparison to the depth and intentions of his themes?
Certainly in addressing these questions what must also be considered is Munch's initial inspirations and motivations; and whether they were of a personal nature or alternatively a product of the social and cultural environment in which he was living; and ultimately to determine whether his sentiments and his generic exploration typified those of his Norwegian - artistic and literary - counterparts.
The social climate of Norway during the last half of the nineteenth century would no doubt have made a profound impression upon Munch and quite possibly the sensibilities of the Norwegian people collectively. Norway existed without a decisive and distinctive identity; '...culturally it remained dependent on Denmark and Germany and socially it was dominated by the middle class.'<1> In Modern Norway 1814 - 1972, T. K. Derry characterises Norwegian cultural displacement and anonymity as such: '[Norway is]...a small country on the periphery of a great cultural region, which must always derive much of its artistic inspiration and techniques from outside...'<2>
So perhaps the pursuit for an appropriate national identity, coupled with the inspiration and incentives of the artistic and literary renaissance - which reached its pinnacle of creativity in the final quarter of the nineteenth century - offered Munch the necessary motivation to explore themes in which the nature and disposition of the Norwegian people was a pronounced pictorial feature.
Several notable painters, utilising their intimate association with the notion of National Romanticism, developed themes of national identity through their affinity toward and awe of the physical environment; the Norwegian landscape. The work of Johan Christian Dahl (1788 - 1857] in particular, romanticised and idealised the landscape, effectively associating 'national identity' with iconography. 'Identity' was then paralleled with aspects of the natural landscape - like the 'mountain' or the 'waterfall' - which were seen to be quintessentially 'Norwegian'. (Dahl's Stalheim, West Norway, typifies his sentiments.]
Alternatively, others, like Adolf Tidemand (1814 - 76] reproduced scenes of folk-loric tradition and popular mythologies as well as characterising '...[the] peasant cult of the period...'<3> exemplified in his piece titled The Haugeans. His intentions were no doubt to encourage feelings of national pride toward Norwegian cultural history. This can also be recognised as an attempt to create a distinctive national identity through reviving folk-heritage and romantic notions of Norway's past.
However, Munch's thematic forays into the exploration of national identity as it corresponded with the natural landscape conflicts with those of the artists already mentioned. The Scream introduces the viewer to Munch's 'anxiety' motif; in which the figure in the foreground is literally engulfed by nature. The Norwegian landscape which was once idealised is now juxtaposed against feelings of apprehension and fear toward the physical environment.
Anxiety expands on this motif; revealing a group of people: static in their movement; their faces vacant. The landscape hangs above them, 'nature' now indicative of hostility and horror. Both pictures characterise '...the crumbling order of society...'<4> '[which] ...arose from the tensions of contemporary life...''<5> The Norwegian landscape becomes a metaphor for a changing society and its impending social progress. This also epitomised a threat to the identity of the Norwegian community, thus creating an atmosphere of anxiety.
It may also be possible to suggest a parallel or affinity between Munch's thematic discourse on 'anxiety' and (Danish philosopher) Kierkegaard's publication of The Concept of Dread (1844). Exemplified in the work of each was the notion that '...anxiety...[is] a phenomenon of existence...[and furthermore that]...when an apparently dependable order is being questioned...[a] new clarification of the basic questions of human existence [is needed]'.<6>
In reassessing and clarifying the 'basic questions of human existence'; Munch's art challenged the shifting patterns in Norwegian social life. Developing themes from current topical issues, his work reinforced and reflected the character of the Norwegian people.
One particular thematic discourse which Munch maintained throughout much of his career was that of 'women'. Specifically, themes of 'feminine identity', gender associations and emancipation were emphasised. Additionally, the potential social position held by women - once their 'identity' and impending political emancipation had been established - was also portrayed.
However. Munch's motivational drive in this area may have been of a more intimate nature rather than a collective interest in exploring feminine qualities to aid the feminist cause.
His sexual relations with women were often noted as being the source of his misogyny; the inspiration behind the creation of his 'vampire' motif. Munch often characterised women as vampires, and in 1911, the playwright Max Dauthendey, in his piece titled Maja, described the theory behind the 'vampire' as such: '...women...vampirelike, attack man and suck him dry with their kisses.'<7> Women are thus represented as aggressors, femmes fatales who in 'attacking men and sucking them dry', leave them emasculated; symbolically castrated.
Munch's categorisation of women was also typical in literary circles; with similar sentiments being echoed by the likes of Ibsen and Strindberg; as exemplified in the following:
Ibsen's A Doll's House was considered to be both influential and instrumental in - as far as literature was concerned - '...further[ing] the cause of feminine emancipation...'<9> Its progressive attitudes towards the identity of the Norwegian woman; and specifically '...the obligations of a woman to husband and home, versus the claims of individual liberty'<10> led A Doll's House to become a pivotal factor in the advancement of both Norwegian literature and Norwegian social progress.
Yet, Munch too. was capable of exploring themes in which the feminist cause was prevalent within the discourse. Lust and The Alley were two such examples. They were demonstrative of the notion that although women have the potential to be metaphoric 'vampires', men could be equally as destructive and intimidating. In Lust, '...the lecherous hands of men stretch from all sides towards the body of a half-naked woman...',<11> rendering her vulnerable and susceptible to exploitation. Additionally it was thought that the issue of prostitution concerned Munch and was thus the inspiration for both pieces.
The issue of prostitution was also prevalent in Christian Krohg's story Albertine (1887). Littered with anti-bourgeois sentiments, it attempted to question antiquated attitudes toward Norwegian women and toward the situation of prostitution.
Although Munch was more renowned for his 'vampire' characterisation of women, pieces like Woman replicate and emphasise more sympathetic and flattering images of feminine identity. Three different women; each reflecting a different mood in perhaps one woman; is the thematic motif in Woman. The painting is indicative of women having more than one dimension to their 'identity'. Yet the three women are also an analogy for the three stages of human existence and/or spiritual development and growth. For example: youth, adulthood and age.
It is also worth noting that the Paris promotional poster for Ibsen's Peer Gynt used a similar motif; thus typifying the 'stages of human existence' as a thematic discourse.
Relations between the sexes was a theme that Munch was to duplicate often throughout his productive years. Pronounced erotic motifs; particularly the parallel between 'eros and death', the possibilities of sexual freedom and additionally, sexual angst and anxiety, were reflected in his work, and also constituted a large proportion of his Frieze Of Life cycle.
Once again the motivation behind his interest in this area may have been indirectly due to his own experiences of love, sexual liberty or sexual anxiety. However, the parallel between the exploration of erotic motifs in art and the Norwegian people's own exploration of sexual identity is clearly emphasised. Certainly it would be fair to suggest that some of Munch's erotic motifs were deliberately intended to provoke the conservatism of the bourgeoisie.
The relationship between eros and death is reflected in Munch's Pregnant Woman Leaning Against A Tree. A heavily pregnant woman leans against a tree; which to Munch was a metaphor of 'growth'; '...the symbol of the tree of life'.<12> However, the image of a skeleton is visible beneath the grass. Pregnancy is then indicative of life - and also sex - and is juxtaposed against the image of death. This affinity between eros and death, and ultimately life and death corresponds directly with The Frieze Of Life, in that birth, life (love) and death are all cyclical and essential to our existence.
The destructive forces behind the motif of 'eros and death' are characterised in Munch's Alpha And Omega cycle. Alpha and Omega - perhaps a metaphoric Adam and Eve - were the first beings in existence. They fell in love but interaction with others provoked jealousy in Alpha and he eventually beat his beloved Omega to death.
The story of Alpha and Omega is also symbolic of sexual liberty and the codes of morality, versus the virtues of marriage and ideally; sexual identity within the confines of married life. This aspect of Munch's 'eros and death' motif no doubt appealed to many Norwegian people; especially women - given their struggle toward emancipation - who perhaps fought to assert their sexual identity in the face of a condemning bourgeoisie.
In fact, 'Sexual morality' as a thematic discourse was also typified by playwright Björnstjerne Björnson (1832 - 1910) at about the same time, in his lecture titled 'Polygamy or Monogamy'.<13>
The period after 1908 proved to be somewhat of an artistic metamorphosis for Munch. Being the time in which he suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown, his attitudes and pictorial themes after this period altered significantly. His primary concern became the class system in Norway; and most of his motifs were appropriate to this theme.
More specifically, his work reflected and affirmed his contempt toward the dominion of bourgeois ethics. His hostility toward the middle-class only increased his feelings toward the proletariat worker - who were later upheld by Munch as Norwegian icons, epitomising the 'common man'. Workmen In The Snow is one such example.
However, his thematic exploration of the Norwegian class environment did exist in his work earlier than 1908, such as in the piece titled Gamblers in Monte Carlo (1892). Here Munch reflects the materialism; the indulgent attitudes of both the middle and upper class. Their preoccupation with the acquisition of wealth is characterised by the casino milieu - a symbol of money and affluence. Munch reinforces his pictorial motif in a written reflection: some of which follows: '...As in an enchanted castle - where the devil is throwing a party - the gambling hell of Monaco...'<14>
Munch expanded on this motif in his lithograph - The Rich Man (printed in 1911). In it, he shows '...a well-dressed, portly gentleman, distributing money to a group of beggars, surrounded by dogs gnawing bones. Under it, Munch wrote: :"The rich steal from society. When the rich give alms they steal twice; they steal hearts as well."'<15>
His apparent animosity toward the wealthy of the Norwegian social strata may have evolved, in part, from his struggle to achieve artistic recognition in Norway amidst the reviews of conservative critics. He was already highly regarded in places such as France and Germany. His other frustration arose from his lack of affluence, especially when '...some of his friends of his young days...had, to him undeservedly, gained wealth and fame. He resented their complacent superiority, while he had to keep on struggling.'<16>
Consistently, though, Munch would return to themes in which the bourgeoisie were both characterised and satirised. Homage To Society depicts a small group of people chatting to each other on a street; their faces grossly distorted to the extent that they have become caricatures. This piece of 'social satire' was no doubt intended - according to Werner Timm in his book The Graphic Art of Edvard Munch - to '...[expose] bourgeois tittle-tattle.'<17>
Felix Vallotton (1865 - 1925) - whose work exercised a great stylistic and thematic influence over Munch - also satirised middle-class ethics in his woodcut titled Scene In A Cafe (1892). A parallel exists between the distortion in Munch's figures and those of the people portrayed in Scene In A Cafe. Also a caricature, it depicts a group of well-dressed men in a cafe, entangled in what appears to be a physical fight. Both examples are indicative of the class structure and social climate of the time - specifically the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In this respect, 'art' can be considered as a method of reflecting social and cultural history.
An additional parallel can be identified between Munch's and Valloton's thematic characterisation of the bourgeoisie and one particular work of Ibsen's; namely Pillars Of Society. Its intention being to '...represent...life in a bourgeois society';<18> the play asserts the notion that '...vanity and decay'<19> permeate the structure of middle-class life. These sentiments were generally echoed throughout much of Scandinavian literature at the time; so the sentiments in fact became typical of the era.
Munch's attitudes toward the bourgeoisie were characterised in the thematic motifs of his art; yet they also penetrated his attitudes toward art itself. It was Munch's desire that the distinction between high culture and popular culture become less pronounced. In other words; that 'art' as a component of culture should have the potential to be both popularised and mass consumed. In a letter addressed to Dr Ragnar Hoppe, Munch expresses the following ideals:
Although even though it was Munch's desire to increase the accessibility of (his) art, over the years of his career he recognised that often his art was '...incomprehensible to them. [the "average" Norwegian person]'<21> He appreciated that often the symbolism, the motifs and the thematic intentions behind his work were misinterpreted and misconstrued. One definitive example of this was Munch's first exhibition in Berlin.
People didn't recognise any affinities between his various themes on identity and class relations and their own lives; instead they were offended by Munch's work. Many newspapers and art periodicals in both Germany and Scandinavia took the opportunity to vocalise their own opinions on the situation. For example, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten expressed their disapproval of Munch's artistic style and choice of themes and '...went on to tell how people laughed at the paintings because they didn't understand what they meant.'<22>
So in actuality, this particular incident had little to do with 'bourgeois conservatism' - although much of the criticism of Munch's work did come from older, more conservative middle-class critics and artists - rather it was a reflection of the popular (and preferred) tastes of the time.
However, Norwegian writers and playwrights were also familiar with disapproving middle-class critics and the popular press. For instance, Ibsen's Ghosts encountered several obstacles on its first publication; its thematic discourse on incestuous relationships and venereal disease agitating the authorities and literary critics. In fact, Ghosts was initially put under a police ban in Germany; prohibiting any theatrical performances of the play.
Yet despite initial reservations towards Munch's thematic motifs and artistic style, his work consistently grew in popularity; particularly in Germany. People gradually became more accepting of and accustomed to his techniques and his chosen themes; and with this his credibility (and his financial status) increased steadily.
That his work was highly regarded in Germany was particularly significant. Ideally; because Munch was renowned for exploring themes of class and national identity within his artistic discourse; his themes both reflected and epitomised Norway and Norwegian people. This in effect projected popular images of Norway to other European countries. Additionally, it disassociated Norway with Denmark - who had traditionally exercised cultural hegemony over Norway. So, through popular art and literature. images of Norway could be promoted abroad. Moreover, Munch was not only associated with his work, but also with his country.
Why this was also significant has something to do with his 'workman' theme. As previously mentioned, Munch emphasised and commented on class relations within his art work. He satirised the bourgeoisie and idealised the working class. His images of workmen and their onward struggle, and the working-class ethos, reflected the extent to which Munch believed that the workers were essential to Norway's future. They epitomised a certain quality or character that was quintessentially Norwegian. His woodcut Old Fisherman presents a portrait of an elderly man; who could easily be considered an icon of the working-class; a proletarian worker. What is worth reinforcing is that he chose to reflect the working-class person and working-class environment as the essence of his country, to other countries.
It is my opinion that Munch was compelled to explore themes of 'class' and 'national identity' because of a combination of personal and artistic and/or creative inspirations. In saying this; 'creativity', be it artistic, literary or musical, is influenced, to a certain degree, by 'environment' - social and physical, 'cultural climate' - including high and popular culture, and local and world affairs - both historical and contemporary.
Additionally Munch was often profoundly inspired by his peers - both artistic and literary - and this sentiment was frequently reciprocated by them also.
I would also suggest that Munch chose 'class' and 'national identity' as thematic motifs because they were both applicable and appropriate to the Norwegian social and cultural climate in which he was living. Furthermore, in exploring these themes he could utilise art as a means of communication. He could appeal to all classes - literate or otherwise - without words; but instead through symbols, motifs and metaphors.
Munch's generic exploration of these themes was typical amongst other artists and writers in the sense that parallels can be identified. However, this typification becomes less apparent when definitive styles, techniques and approaches to themes are recognised; individualising each talent in their own right.
Derry. T.K., Modern Norway 1814 - 1972, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, London, 1973.
Dunlop, lan, Edvard Munch, Thames and Hudson, London, 1977.
Popperwell, R.G., Norway, Ernest Benn, London, 1972.
Stang, Nic, Edvard Munch, Johan Grundt Tanum, Oslo, 1972.
Timm, Werner, The Graphic Art Of Edvard Munch, Studio Vista. London, 1969.
1 Dunlop,1977, p n/a.
2 Derry, 1973, p 237
3 Popperwell, 1972, p 52.
4 Timm, 1969, p 69.
5 Timm, 1969, p 69.
6 Timm, 1969, p 72.
7 Timm, 1969, p 39.
8 Dunlop, 1977, p n/a.
9 Derry, 1973. p 254
10 Derry, 1973, p 254.
11 Timm, 1969, p 61.
12 Timm 1969, p 54.
13 Derry, 1973, p 252.
14 Stang, 1972, p 86.
15 Timm, 1969, p 84.
16 Timm, 1969, p 84.
17 Timm, 1969, p 84.
18 Timm, 1969, p 36.
19 Timm, 1969, p 36.
20 Timm, 1969, p 92.
21 Stang, 1972. p 223.
22 Stang, 1972, p 16.
23 Timm, 1969, p n/a.
24 Timm, 1969, p n/a.
25 Timm, 1969, p n/a.
26 Timm, 1969, Woman, p n/a.
27 Stang, 1972, Vampire, p 93.
28 Timm, 1969, Pregnant Woman Leaning Against A Tree, p n/a.
29 Timm, 1969, Workmen In The Snow, p n/a.
30 Stang, 1972, Gamblers In Monte Carlo, p 89.
31 Timm, 1969, Homage to Society, p n/a.
32 Timm, 1969, Old Fisherman, p n/a.