Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream by Sue Prideaux

Edvard Munch's life was as colourful and contorted as his psychologically acute canvases. Tom Rosenthal is astonished and moved by his stamina, iron will and artistic resilience
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The Independent Culture

This first full biography written in English shows, with painful clarity, that his art is compulsively autobiographical. Every time Prideaux produces a nugget of information so bizarre that it seems not only over the top but thoroughly ben trovato there is a note giving the source in the vast Munch archives in Oslo, since he was also an exhaustive verbal recorder of his life.

Rarely in the canon of Western art has there been so much anxiety, fear and deep psychological pain in one artist. That he lived to be 80 and spent only one period in an asylum is a tribute not only to Munch's physical stamina but to his iron will and his innate, robust psychological strength.

Munch was born in 1863, so sickly that he was immediately baptised in case he did not survive. His mother, 23 years younger than his father, produced five children but died, aged 30, of the TB rife in both 19th-century Norway and her family. The father, Christian, was nearly 50 when Edvard was born, He had graduated from serving on coffin ships to being an army doctor, despite being unable to stand the sight of blood. He was also a deeply Pietist Christian zealot and strict disciplinarian who, when beating his children for minor infractions, would invoke the image of their blessed mother who saw them from heaven and grieved over their misbehaviour. Christian used to read Dostoevsky and Poe to his small children, and was a hopeless economic provider, moving endlessly from one insalubrious flat to another and sending the children out to beg money from their richer relatives. His maternal grandfather had died insane, with spinal TB and Edvard feared for most of his life that he would die of the syphilis that was equally rife and also a precursor of insanity.

The trauma of the loss of his mother was compounded a year or so later by that of his beloved sister Sophie, the posthumous model for one of his greatest paintings, The Sick Child. All his life, he kept the chair in which she died. His brother died at 30 and his sister Laura had to be institutionalised with schizophrenia. Only one of his siblings survived him, his sister Inger, whom, with his maternal aunt Karen, he supported once he could make a living as a painter, with whom he corresponded constantly and lovingly, but whom he could not bring himself to visit.

His education was rudimentary as he entered the best schools but was expelled, not for moral turpitude, but because, being constantly ill, his attendance was so bad he couldn't keep up. Yet his artistic gifts, largely untaught, manifested themselves at seven and, at 13, he was accepted at the Art Association, an artists' club where he learnt by copying the works on display. Aged 16, he entered the Technical School because he was good at maths and physics but again left because of illness. It was only then that he decided to become an artist and already he hated the then obligatory varnishing of every oil surface. "No more brown sauce" were his words, echoing Goethe who used the same phrase in his exploration of colour theory in 1810.

Shortly after this, round about the time Ibsen published Ghosts in 1881, Munch entered the Bohemian circle of Kristiania (it did not become Oslo until 1925). His principal mentors were the rumbustious and highly successful painter Christian Krohg and the sinister, syphilitic Hans Jaeger, a stenographer in the Norwegian Parliament. The acknowledged leader of the group, Jaeger was an intellectual wild man, a nihilist who believed that he should drive both his enemies and his disciples to suicide. His effect on Munch happily did not involve suicide but Munch admitted in later life that Jaeger's influence on him had been profound.

Munch lost his virginity to a well-connected army wife who made him feel guilty as an adulterer and deeply jealous as she simultaneously carried on with other men. Add to this the alcohol he consumed in heroic quantities, the time he spent in brothels and the temptations of a Bohemian crowd, and it's a miracle that this handsome but frequently sickly youth survived at all, let alone lived to be 80.

Once he began to show his pictures, he always had a tiny group of supporters who enabled him to survive psychologically more or less intact even though he was always on the breadline. He sold an early work to the nascent Norwegian National Gallery and got two state scholarships, one of which stipulated that he had to learn to draw, which took him to Paris where he studied the work of others but took few lessons.

Paris was followed by Berlin and the heady days of The Black Piglet tavern with Strindberg and the beautiful femme fatale Dagny Juel. She ditched both Munch and Strindberg to marry the charismatic Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski and was later murdered by a fraudulent Polish lover. Munch's relationship with Strindberg was extraordinary. There was intense mutual admiration but, in the end, paranoia induced fear and suspicion on both sides which caused a rift. Both loved and feared women. Strindberg actually married three of them but as Munch described it: "I have always put my art before everything else. Often I felt that Woman would stand in the way of my art. I decided at an early age never to marry."

The Swede put the Norwegian into his books and plays in a thoroughly unflattering light. When Munch lithographed him he labelled him Stindberg, which means, in Norwegian, "mountain of hot air". Yet each acknowledged his debt to the other and, given Munch's fear of "Vampire women", there are several paintings in the great Frieze of Life sequence which bear traces of Strindberg's influence as well as the autobiographical elements of the recognisable women in Munch's life. As with Strindberg, and all devoted paranoiacs, some of those who Munch believed had harmed him had indeed done so, notably Tulla Larsen who had made the first advances and who had, in stalker fashion, done everything possible to turn her lover into her husband. This included threats of breach of promise, fake suicide attempts and the catastrophic pistol episode - no one knows who fired the shot - when the bullet lodged in the middle finger of Munch's left hand. This left the hand that held his palette and his etching plates permanently maimed, necessitating a glove for the rest of his life. (This event inspired the magnificent Death of Marat painting.) No wonder he declared that women had nutcracker muscles in their thighs and reduced men to soup.

Munch was, at least until he checked himself into Doctor Jacobsen's psychological clinic in Copenhagen in 1908, a compulsive frequenter of brothels; he once spent an entire Christmas in one. It is a wonder that he escaped the syphilis he feared, but Jacobsen diagnosed only alcoholism as the primary cause of Munch's temporary insanity. Munch ruefully accepted that he would have, in future, to confine himself to "tobacco-free cigars, alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women". But, according to Prideaux, he resisted Jacobsen's psychological probings and effected his own mental cure at the clinic. His stay coincided with a hugely successful show in Kristiania with 60,000 Kroner worth of sales. Munch paid for a celebratory dinner for his friends at his favourite Norwegian watering hole, the Grand Hotel, and kept an open telephone line to his Copenhagen bedside so that he could join in the fun.

Munch had great success in Germany via various avant garde Jewish dealers and enlightened rich patrons, but the post-First World War hyper-inflation ruined them and, despite his early enthusiasm, Goebbels, who wrote him an egregious fan letter on his 70th birthday - in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power - dropped him as soon as the Nazi policy of pillorying Entartete Kunst (Decadent Art) came in. The 80 or so Munchs in German collections were held to official ridicule and then sold on the international market, including Norway, to raise hard currency for National Socialism.

Despite that, the Quisling-led government in occupied Norway during the Second World War tried to make Munch the figurehead of its Honorary Board of Norwegian Artists. Munch refused and the Board was dropped. The government commandeered one of his major houses, failed to get to his hoard of paintings but, on his death, as the author puts it, "hijacked" his corpse and burial so that instead of a simple interment in the family plot, he was given a state funeral with gigantic Nazi insignia and flags.

The years of his success and wealth were lived frugally in a large house at Ekely, whose locked second floor contained his bequest to Norway of thousands of works of art. He had a succession of "poison-free women", a series of beautiful models whom he painted with undiminished erotic joy and sexual tension.

Munch said that his paintings were his children, even though he gave many of them a somewhat Spartan upbringing, deliberately leaving them not only unvarnished but exposed to the elements in his vast outdoor studio or hung on walls, unframed and with nails through them. His vast heritage of great paintings and lithographs exists as both testament and record of his life. He once wrote: "Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul."

Prideaux has written a life which goes a long way towards upholding his aim and anyone who wants to know how and why he painted as he did should read this book.