Edvard Munch: His Life and Work in Context

It was Edvard Munch from soup to nuts, or least as much of him as David Curcio could squeeze into his NerdNite talk, “Edvard Munch: His life and Work in Context.”

A timid speaker Curcio was as passionate about Munch, as Munch was about painting.  “What I hope to do in our short time is sort of clarify a little bit about this artists life,” he said, “and the conceptions and popular misconceptions about his art as a tormented genius, and the sort of lone bohemian who brought about work from his pain.”

It was a long talk, clocking in at a cool 55 minutes but Curcio kept the audience en rapt as he talked about Munch’s turbulent childhood, the loss of his mother and sister to tuberculosis, growing up with a fanatically religious father, and the groundbreaking work we have come to know him for which he created throughout his 20‘s, 30‘s and 40‘s.

Portraits, paintings and wood cuts were projected on the screen in somewhat rapid fire and Curcio even read excerpts from Munch’s own writing, which added a unique and intimate flavour to the lecture.

“Two of mankind’s most harmful enemies were granted to me as an inheritance… an inheritance of tuberculosis and mental illness.

Sickness and insanity were the black angels who guarded my cradle…”

Curcio painted an ominous picture of Christiania Norway at the time when Munch started out.  “Norway, in the late 19th century, was sort of a country without an identity,” he said. “The age of the vikings was long gone and it was coming out of a period that was known as the 400 year night.”

Munch, along with many other artists, headed to Paris where he soaked up the art and politics of the time honing his craft and earning a name for himself as an up-and-coming artist.  “Many came back having absorbed impressionism, and another “ism”, symbolism which often involved somewhat fantastic scenes with rich colours to evoke strong emotions.  This was something that Munch particularly resonated with,” said Curcio

He went on to talk in incredible detail about the gradual evolution of Munch’s trademark style, and how his obsessive fixation on subject matter helped define him as a ground breaking artist.  “He had a hard time moving on from a subject once he started painting it,” Curcio said. “He rarely moved on and he considered his work his children and he would obsessively repaint work to keep it around him.”

Munch’s work is evocative, and he used his style to create even more of an emotional response.  For example, in “The Sick Child,” said Curcio, “The constant reworking.  His scraping his work with the palette knife, the way the paint seems to be sort of pulled down across, as if seen through a veil of tears.  Suffice it to say, it was very revolutionary painting in it’s all at once overly finished and unfinished qualities.  If that makes sense, which I think it does.” and it did.

Death, sex, women, and alienation were major themes in his work.  Particularly the death of his mother, which haunted him from his childhood and he painted many times.  Curcio talked us through works like, “The Morning After, and “Puberty” which dealt with different non-glamorous aspects of sexuality featuring lone figures in iconic and expressive gestures.

In another painting like “Anxiety,” Curcio pointed out, “we’re starting to recognize some hallmarks of Munch’s style.  Classically Munch.  Undulating skies and compositions that are defined by swirls and circles and kind of dead eyed movement.”

Curcio also discussed the importance of city life for the artist and how it was a source of both fascination and anxiety, and he used the displacement and loneliness he felt were part of city life, to fuel his art. “In Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892)” Curcio said, “he introduced a new type of urban landscape, he depicted scenes of displacement and alienation and depersonalization that results from industrialization.”

An audience member called, “Is the resemblance to South Park characters intentional?” Curcio replied with a laugh, “They’re a little taller.

Since no talk about Munch would be complete without “The Scream,” Curcio read a passage from Munch’s writing about this painting:

“I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun set.  I felt a tinge of melancholy, suddenly the sky became a bloody red.  I stopped, leaned against the railing dead tired and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and soared over the blue-black fjord and the city.  My friends walked on, I stood there trembling with fright and I felt a loud unending scream piercing nature.”

Curcio’s talk was encyclopedic and grand in scale, the slides flowed freely and he probably could have talked for weeks about Munch without too many complaints other than a numb butt.  Despite its duration, there was an audible sigh of disappointment when he finally had to bring his talk to a close.  There were many other things he touched on, Munch’s interest in Darwin, atheism, his love and fear of women, and interest in Freud, not to mention his failed experimentations with free love. “We have not touched on things like “syphilis,” Curcio said, “his failed love affairs, his hospitalization at age 45  and while being one of the most famous painters in Europe he started to go somewhat insane due to chronic alcoholism, but managed to clean up and life another 35 years.”