Munch, Edvard: Puberty (1895)

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Almost the same pleasure can be derived from the unpleasant practice of playing with the pools and drops of spilt beer on a pub table " drawing a couple of them into proximity, getting their skins to meet and break, watching the liquid flow from one into the other, and seeing a new, undulating outline take shape.

Or imagine there was a coin on the table top too, and you pushed the coin across so that it just made contact with the pool: where they met, the edge of the liquid would go into a concave curve as it sucked up to and around the edge of the coin. Exactly that kind of edge-meeting, one form fluidly clinging to another as if by surface tension, is a device you often find in the work of Edvard Munch.

Munch's pictorial world is an amoeba world. Its basic units are bounded, blobby, protozoic shapes. Everything important happens in two-dimensions, among these flat outlined areas. True, there is some depth in his pictures. The Scream has a violently receding road-bridge. But its real drama is in the way the wiggly open-mouthed creature is sucked up, as if by a twister, into the rippling sky behind it.

Shapes that stand apart " or that converge, touch, merge, envelop, invade, enclose: these are the crucial relationships, the crucial metaphors, in Munch. The shapes are usually human figures, and what happens between them has a psychological charge, usually unhappy. There's sad isolation and non-communication, when single figures are contained each in a separate bounded shape. There's hideous, passionate bondage, when two figures are forced together into a single enclosing shape. And you have various kinds of dangerous contact, fatal attraction, encircling flows, mutual leakage. Man's head is entrapped by woman's streaming hair, or flooded round by a gloomy landscape. Fluidity is generally a worry.

Puberty shows a girl with a bug-eyed, squashed, oval face, sitting on a bed's edge, mortified by the onset of womanhood/menstruation/sexuality. She's in a body-clinch, legs clamped together, arms crossed across her crotch, trying to cover herself from the eyes of the world and the viewer.

Munch presumably is projecting his queasy, uneasy feelings about women on to the teenage girl, with the alarming thought: imagine if you found you were actually turning into a woman. That would be, so to speak, the extreme case of Munch's normal apprehensions " of being taken over by women, entangled, sucked dry. He strongly identifies with the girl as she finds she is becoming one of these horrors. It must be even worse for her. She tries her best to resist, and his image dramatises her struggle.

The body-clinch makes this figure into a bounded form. You could draw an outline all round it. The arms have withdrawn. The legs have come together. The toes join into a single curve. If the arms hung looser, a gap might open between elbow and waist, but there are no gaps anywhere. The body makes a single shape. It wants to stay safe, an unleaky, untouchable form. Nothing in the picture breaks into this shape, intrudes on its boundary, or overlaps it. Nothing except...

The picture has a second protagonist. There is the girl's shadow. It isn't really a shadow. It isn't shaped like her. It doesn't fall properly, across the bed, up the wall. It's a rounded, formless dark blob that's just attached her. It emanates from her hips, and flows into her thighs " that's the single intrusion across the boundaries of her shape " and swells, and hangs in the air beside her like a like an ectoplasmic spook; like a big, black, slightly phallic thought bubble.

You need not fix a definite meaning to it. It is open to interpretation. It stands for all the things (according to Munch) the girl is afraid of or ought to be afraid of. It has the ambiguity of the symbolic shadow, it is both external and internal: it is her doom and part of her.

And you see how it attaches to her. It is Munch's distinctive suction effect. You find it in The Scream, where the sky form flows out of the screamer. You find it here. The blob of pubescence has a liquid shape, and it sucks on to the girl's side, like a pool of liquid clinging to the hard edge of a coin, its outline creeping all the way down her leg to the floor.


Edvard Munch (1863-1944) lived for a surprisingly long time, but his famous works are young man's works. Having had almost all his good ideas around 1900, while working in Germany, Munch had a breakdown, recovered, returned to Norway and worked on, making more serene and sometimes public-spirited pictures.