Behind the Scream: Essential background reading on Edvard Munch

Today the Tate Modern launches its fabulous new Edvard Munch exhibition The Modern Eye, which focuses on the Norwegian artist’s engagement with modernist principles in the 20th century. Here we take a look at a series of essential Munch books from Yale, including Sue Prideaux’s acclaimed biography Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream.

Usually a rather elusive figure, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) has been in the public eye several times this year.  The Norwegian expressionist’s famous painting ‘The Scream’ became the most expensive artwork sold at auction, after it fetched $119.9m (£74m) at Sotheby’s in May. If this wasn’t exciting enough, the Tate Britain has today launched its new exhibition Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye.

The exhibition confronts the accepted view of Munch as a 19th century Symbolist painter, by examining the artist’s work from the 20th century. Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye seeks to illustrate how Munch engaged with modernity and was inspired by the everyday life outside of his studio. The show also examines how Munch often repeated a single motif over a long period of time in order to re-work it, as can be seen in the different versions of his most celebrated works, such as The Sick Child and Girls on the Bridge.

Like other painters such as Bonnard and Vuillard, Munch adopted photography in the early years of the 20th century, focusing mainly on self-portraits. The Tate exhibition explores these experiments, as well as the poignant works in which Munch charted the effects of his degenerating sight after he contracted an eye disease in the 1930s.

Behind the Scream

Munch’s work has connected with audiences across the globe for more than a century. However, despite the widespread recognition of Edvard Munch’s famous paintings such as ‘The Scream’, the artist himself remains an elusive figure, and not much is known about him in the public sphere. What kind of person could have created this universal image, one that so vividly expressed all the uncertainties of the twentieth century? What kind of experiences did he have?

Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream

Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream

In 2007 Yale published Sue Prideaux’s Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, the first comprehensive biography of Munch in English. Receiving rave reviews from critics and art historians, Prideaux performed the difficult task of successfully brining this elusive artist to life. Combining a scholar’s precision with a novelist’s insight, Prideaux explored the events of Munch’s turbulent life and unerringly placed his experiences in their intellectual, emotional and spiritual contexts.

With unlimited access to tens of thousands of Munch’s papers, including his letters and diaries, Prideaux (who recently published a critically acclaimed biography of August Strindberg) offers a portrait of the artist that is both intimate and moving. Prideaux shows that Munch sought to paint what he experienced rather than what he saw, and as his life often veered out of control, his experiences were painful. Yet he painted throughout his long life, creating strange and dramatic works in which hysteria and violence lie barely concealed beneath the surface.

Influence, Anxiety, and Myth

Two potent myths have traditionally defined our understanding of the artist Munch: he was mentally unstable, as ‘The Scream’ suggests, and he was radically independent, following his own singular vision. Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth by Jay A. Clarke persuasively challenges these entrenched perceptions.

Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth

Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth

Clarke demonstrates that Munch was thoroughly in control of his artistic identity, a savvy businessman skilled in responding to the market and shaping popular opinion. Moreover, the author shows that Munch was keenly aware of the art world of his day, adopting motifs, styles and techniques from a wide variety of sources, including many Scandinavian artists.

By presenting Munch’s paintings, prints and drawings in relation to those of European contemporaries, including Harriet Backer, James Ensor, Vincent van Gogh, Max Klinger, Christian Kroh, and Claude Monet, Clarke reveals often surprising connections and influences. This interpretive approach, grounded in Munch’s diaries and letters, period criticism and the artworks themselves, reintroduces Munch as an artist who cultivated myths both visual and personal.

Becoming Edvard Munch features beautiful colour reproductions of approximately 150 works, including 75 paintings and 75 works on paper by Munch and his peers. For Munch completists, The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch considers the artist’s graphic work through the lens of a private collection, and includes impressions of virtually all of his major prints, along with alternative versions and early states.

There has never been a better time to explore the work of this unusual, distinctive and influential artist.

Edvard Munch: Behind the ScreamBecoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth and The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch are available now from Yale University Press.

Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye at the Tate Modern will run from 28 June until 14 October

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