I didn't know what to expect when I walked into San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art (June 24 - October 9) to see an exhibit of paintings by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). "The Scream" is considered by some as the second most famous image in art history, after Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." Admittedly, I wasn't familiar with anything else in the Norwegian painter and printmaker's extensive oeuvre. That's why, when I moved through one gallery after another, I was struck by a feeling of darkness that seemed to pervade everything I viewed, even a colorful painting titled "The Dance of Life."
I couldn't help but wonder about Munch's life experiences. What tragedies, illnesses, and failures had contributed to his somber expressions? After I returned to my studio, I searched online for biographical details that might help me understand what I sensed in the show. Philosophers have long reflected on suffering, and the melancholia that can arise from it, as a key element in artistic inspiration. History is replete with poets, novelists, artists, and composers who found a way to transcend their anguish. They managed to transform pain and sorrow into something of beauty and healing that we not only appreciate but also cherish. Was this true for Munch as well? Here's what I learned.
"Illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle," Munch wrote in a private journal. He lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was only five years old. Nine years later, Sophie, his favorite of three sisters, also succumbed to the disease at age 15. Her demise deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Munch painted many compositions of her final days. "The Sick Child" is one of them.
Another sister was institutionalized for mental illness. His only brother died suddenly of pneumonia at age 30. Toward the end of 1899, his devout father died of a stroke. "Night in Saint-Cloud," which he painted in the following year, reflects his state of mind. Munch had moved to Saint-Cloud when cholera broke out in Paris.
In the next few years, Munch's already excessive drinking spiraled out of control. Instead of calming his rages, it led to increased anger. In 1908, on the heels of a physical collapse caused by alcohol abuse, hallucinatory voices, and paralysis on his left side, he admitted himself to a private sanatorium in Copenhagen. Despite the fame and wealth that came his way, serenity never did. In the early 1920s, he wrote, "The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright."
Although he lived until he was 80, Munch, like his family members, did not possess robust health in the best of times. As a boy, he too had contracted tuberculosis and spit blood. As an adult, he nearly died during the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. In 1930, a blood vessel burst in his right eye and left him temporarily half-blind. His love affairs had caused him misery as well. Although the details remain vague, during a lover's quarrel with a woman who doggedly pursued him, he shot himself with a revolver and lost part of a finger on his left hand.
Given the ongoing wretchedness and bleakness, despite professional success, someone else might have thrown in the towel. Instead, as he aged, Munch sought solace in solitude. He chronicled his endless afflictions and humiliations, yet continued to pick up a brush whenever he could. He wrote:
My sufferings are part of my self and my art--they have become one with me. Without illness and anxiety, I would have been a rudderless ship.....They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art....What is art really? The outcome of dissatisfaction with life, the point of impact for the creative force, the continual movement of life....In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself. All art, literature, and music must be born in your heart's blood. Art is your heart's blood.
Once I learned about Munch's life, I kept coming across this manner of thinking among other artists as well. Creating art has the potential to save one's life. I wasn't surprised to also find it in fiction, for example, in When the Music's Over, a British mystery novel by Peter Robinson. Here's what one character, a poet, expresses:
I pulled myself out of the darkness [the trauma of a double rape], shook myself off, and went on with my life. I squeezed it all into a ball and hid it away in the deepest, darkest place I could find, where it remains to this day, a dark star inside me. In a very odd way, I feel I've been feeding off it ever since. The poetry has been feeding off it, though never about it...Talking about it [to a detective inspector] worries me, not so much because it upsets me--though that is certainly the case--but because I'm afraid I might lose something by letting out the darkness that feeds me, lose my muse, my creativity, my poetry. Sometimes I need the darkness.
Reflecting on Munch and the fictional poet and interviews I've read, I have to ask: Must one be a tortured artist to be a great artist? No one in the world escapes the slings and arrows of life--that's a sine qua non of existence. We lose someone we hold dear, get into a freak accident that incapacitates us, become the victim of a crime, endure a physical or mental illness due to genes, endure the atrocities and ravages of war, feel the sting of poverty and hunger, have our home destroyed by a hurricane, earthquake, or fire, experience discrimination because of gender, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, or disability. These are some of the unfortunate vagaries of being human; we have no control over them. Can we turn the suffering into something beautiful and healing for ourselves and others? And, if there is healing, can we keep creating, but from a different source, one that is no longer dark? Do we really need darkness to bring forth memorable art?
Comments & Questions:
Knowing that some of the most renowned artists have led tortured lives, do you think that tragedy is essential to artistic greatness? Why?
Have painful experiences in your own life led to creative expression? Did that help you transcend the difficulty? If so, how?