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The Religious Affiliation of Painter
Edvard Munch


Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is regarded as one of the greatest artists in world history. His most famous paintings include
The Kiss (1897) and The Scream (1893).

Edvard Munch was raised as a devout Lutheran. As an adult, however, he abandoned the strongly-held Protestant Christian beliefs that had shaped his childhood. Munch was never again an orthodox member of any religious denomination or formally organized religion, but he remained intensely interested in spirituality and religion. Munch and his wife were involved in and interested in Spiritualism. Munch wrote much about religious topics, and his beliefs have characterized as Pantheistic.


Painting by Edvard Munch: Detail from Self-portrait with Brushes, 1904. Oil on canvas, 77.5 x 36 in. Munch Museum.

Painting by Edvard Munch: Golgotha, 1900. Oil on canvas, 31.5 x 47.25 in. Munch Museum.

Painting by Edvard Munch: The Scream (or The Cry; originally called Despair), 1893. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 75 x 90 cm. National gallery, Oslo.

Painting by Edvard Munch: The Kiss, 1897. Oil on canvas, 39 x 31.9 in. Munch Museum.

From: Alf Boe [Alf Bøe], Edvard Munch, Rizzoli: New York, NY (1989), pages 28-30:

Munch's Faith
Throughout most of mankind's history, the meaning of works of art has been based on prevailing religious and political beliefs. The artist was by and large an interpreter of accepted truths and was quite happy to be so. Not until the first years of the century in which Munch was born -- the Age of Romanticism -- did the artist become the most important actor on the stage. As skepticism about the sanctity of time-honored truths spread, so did the personal vision of the intuitively gifted artist acquire an increased value. Seen from this point of view, it is clear that the symbolist artists of the 1890s saw themselves as the direct heirs of their Romantic predecessors.

Munch's view of himself as an explorer of inner realities reflects the Romantic view. The personal nature of his interpretation of life is so obvious that understanding his individual philosophy of life and individual faith becomes increasingly crucial to gaining a real understanding of his work. Let us therefore, by way of conclusion, try to say something about Munch's beliefs.

From private letters and other sources, we know that orthodox Protestantism formed the basic religious attitudes in Munch's childhood home. The children and their parents were convinced of the reality of sin and punishment at the same time as they hoped for salvation and cultivated a quite literal belief that they would all meet again beyond the grave. Such faith provided comfort and strength in difficult times, and a loving family life -- within the obvious limits of bourgeois moral norms, and subject to the rigors of fatherly chastisement and admonition -- was fundamental to the cultural system of which the Munch family were part. For Munch as well as his brothers and sisters, Christianity was the cornerstone of childhood faith.

Young Edvard's faith collapsed at some point during the 1880s, after he came in contact with the radical circles of the Kristiania bohemians. Hans Jasger in particular must have played a decisive role in this. The break must have been profoundly disturbing to Munch, especially as regarded his relationship with his father.

After the death of Christian Munch's wife, his religious feelings could at times assume fanatical proportions. His son soon drifted away, becoming intensely involved in a love affair with a married woman. Although Munch as an adult could no longer call himself a Christian, he retained throughout his life a need to reflect on existential mysteries at the deepest level. The words of his friend Jens Thiis, penned in 1909 and reproduced in his book published in 1933 on the occasion of Munch's seventieth birthday, apply to the artist at every stage of his life: "All the same, I am convinced that Munch's artistic temperament has a profound leaning towards the metaphysical, something which gives to his art an air of almost religious celebration of the wonders of life."

The spiritualism which flourished in Europe and the U.S. during the latter part of the nineteenth century provided a meeting ground for Christians and agnostics -- a point where both could join in the exploration of an unknown reality. The Munch family's contacts with leading members of the spiritualist movement in Kristiania have recently been documented by Arne Eggum in his book Munch and Photography. Such contacts were probably the source of the young Munch's interest in the irrational and the supernatural -- there was, after all, no contradiction in being both radical and interested in the type of supernatural phenomena which preoccupied the spiritualists. His first direct expression of interest in the great mysteries of life occurs in the autobiographical notes made during his stay at St. Cloud in winter of 1889-90.

News of his father's death reached him late in autumn of 1889, and probably helped to precipitate a period of depression during which he thought much about loved ones who were dead -- his father, his sister and mother -- and about death itself, the meaning of life, and the connections between it all. It was problems such as these that he discussed with the Danish writer Emanuel Goldstein, probably his closest friend at that time. He wrote the famous artistic "manifesto" already referred to, in which he prophesied an art that would explore the life-forces at their deepest level and began expressing thoughts which indicated that he was now looking to replace the rigid world-view of his religious upbringing with a more personal pantheism, based on ideas and concepts familiar to contemporary popularized natural science. Reinhold Heller stresses the influence of the German botanist and philosopher Ernst Heckel, prominent among popularizers of Darwin's theories and a man whose work was widely known and discussed by his contemporaries. Taking as his point of departure Darwin's theory of evolution, Heckel developed his own "Transmutation theory," which came to exert a direct influence on Munch's art, primarily in connection with the theme of rebirth which we have touched upon in our descriptions of Munch's use of trees in his paintings and of the 1899 painting Metabolism.

In an important note written in St. Cloud in spring of 1890, Munch's ideas about rebirth are tinged with pantheism. He tries to describe the exact occasion when the great cycle of birth and death in nature was suddenly revealed to him:

It had been cold for such a long time, and then suddenly the weather turned mild and spring-like -- I went walking in the hills, enjoying the soft air and the sun -- the sun was warm, only now and then a chill breath of wind -- like something from a vault, mist was rising from the damp earth, there was a smell of rotting leaves -- how quiet it all was -- and yet I sensed the ripening life all around me -- in this steaming earth with its rotting leaves -- in these bare twigs -- soon they would be in bud, live again -- and the sun shine on the green leaves and the flowers, and the wind blow them in the sultry summer. I experienced a kind of rapture at the thought of transcience -- to become one with this earth which was always in fermentation, always in the light of the sun, and which was living, living -- and from my rotting body plants and trees would grow -- and plants and flowers, and the sun warm them, and I inside it all, nothing would come to an end, this is eternity --

In Heller's words, "Popularized concepts of physics and evolutionary biology formed the foundations for his Decadent faith."

Notes and writings from different periods of Munch's life indicate that such problems continued to preoccupy him. All of them reinforce our picture of an agnostic who under a variety of influences never ceased to grapple with the greatest mysteries of life -- the dynamics of life, the transitory nature of human existence, the relationship between man and some kind of higher power in the universe. A rather disjointed note, written in Nice on January 8 1892, illustrates this:

The seat of that power, the origin and source of that power which all living things share, which enables you to grow, to develop, to shape yourself -- no-one knows that -- The seeds of life -- or the spirit, or soul, if you prefer -- it is stupid to deny the existence of the soul -- One cannot, after all, deny the existence of the seeds of life

One must believe in immortality -- insofar as it can be postulated that the seeds of life, or the soul of life, continue their existence after the body is dead -- This power to keep a body together -- to cause growth in matter -- the spirit of life -- what happens to that --

Nothing vanishes -- no example of this exists in Nature --
Bodies that die -- do not disappear -- the components of
matter split up -- get used in another way --
But the spirit of life, what happens to that --
No one can say -- to maintain that it does not exist after
the death of the body is just as stupid as trying to define it
in some rigid category -- or to say where it will exist, this
spirit -- To say anything at all definite about what happens
after we die is stupid...
There will always be mysteries -- the more things are
discovered -- the more there will be of inexplicable things...

Munch's continuing interest in such questions is further documented in the notebooks. In 1929 he writes: "Through it all you might say I have been a doubter, but one who has never denied or mocked religion -- my doubt was more an attack on the overpietism that dominated my upbringing." He tried to summarize his faith in another note, dated June 8 1934: "My declaration of faith: I bow down before something which, if you want, one might call God -- the teaching of Christ seems to me the finest there is, and Christ himself is very close to godlike -- if one can use that expression."

I do not know enough about the influences that came to bear on Munch at different periods of his life, and it is difficult to distinguish those aspects of his art which reflect conscious intellectual attitudes from those which merely express ideas and views which were the common property of the age in which he lived. We can, however, trace the influences of specific works of literature and philosophy, although we cannot always be precise about the onset or duration of such influences. Munch said, for example, that he did not come across Seiren Kierkegaard's Angst until the 1920s, at which time he was struck by the parallels between the book and his own work of the 1890s.

Other influences can be pointed to with some degree of certainty. It is clear, for example, that after the scandalous success of his exhibition in Berlin in 1892, when Munch became overnight a leading figure in radical artistic circles, he once more took part in discussions of supernatural phenomena. He read books about spiritualism and the occult and formed close friendships with the Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski and with August Strindberg. Everything we know about their approaches to life indicates that Munch would have discussed with them such subjects as psychology, spiritualism, occultism, personal magnetism, and other irrational phenomena, all of which are referred to in his paintings. Moreover, these men were but two of many such whom he met at this time.

Munch seems never to have developed a fully cohesive philosophical system, but after the turn of the century his thinking turned increasingly to a consideration of the great cosmic powers, and to using them as basic themes in the monumental series of pictures done for the University of Oslo. It seems likely that he was attracted to Rudolf Steiner's philosophy, as well as other thinkers and writers who inspired the vitalism that flourished in painting and literature immediately preceding World War I.

Not infrequently Munch expresses himself in a way that recalls Nietzsche. We know that he read Nietzsche's works after 1900, although his familiarity with Nietzsche's ideas may have predated this by a decade. Kristian Schreiner, leader of Oslo University's Anatomical Institute and from the mid-1920s on a close friend of Munch's, recalls that Munch returned constantly in his monologues to his ideas about the way in which the universe is built up. "Here you could only listen to him in silent wonder" says the matter-of-fact man of science as he quotes Munch: " 'The world is one huge, living atom, It has thought-power and will-power, the clouds are its breath, the storms its mighty breathing, the glowing lava is its seething blood. Why shouldn't the sun have a will too, as it hurls its flow of light out into space? There is life and will and movement in everything, in stones and crystals as well as in the planets. The orbiting of the planets is evidence of will. And just as people's words can be sent in the form of waves through the ether, so can their thoughts travel in wave-like motion.' When, in some of his graphic work, he depicts the woman's wave-like hair functioning as the connection between her and the man, this was actually an anticipation of the discovery by a succeeding age of the existence of wave-motions in the ether."

Where Munch speculates on such matters in his notes, he writes almost like a prose-poet. Here are some typical examples:

Are there spirits?
We see what we see because our eyes are constructed to see
thus --
What are we? Energy bound in movement -- a light burning
-- with a wick -- then the inner flame -- then the outer flame
-- and beyond that yet another invisible ring of flame --
If our eyes were made differently -- then, as with X-ray eyes, we'd see only our wicks -- our bone structure -- And if our eyes were made in still another way, we'd be able to see our outer rings of flames -- see people in different forms -- Why shouldn't there be other beings, less physically substantial than us -- which move in and through and around us -- The souls of the dead -- The souls of our loved ones -- and evil spirits

(Manuscript T 2704, uncertain date)


You inconceivable something that resides deep inside the protoplasma -- in which you are like some infinitely huge head painted across the firmament -- god -- the inconceivable -- beyond thought -- the great secret -- righteousness -- if I have sinned -- I shall be tormented forever -- I did not ask for this world -- no more than I asked for my skin to be white -- just as the color of my hair is a matter of heredity -- I have inherited my instincts and I heard a voice inside me -- Man, no one is evil -- Enjoy the sun -- like the plants, that turn their leaves towards its light -- love one another -- be tolerant of one another -- and when your time comes to die -- when you reach the longed-for goal -- then relinquish yourself gladly to the air and the earth, then rejoice

(Manuscript T 2782, uncertain date)


nothing is tiny, nothing is huge --
there are worlds within us -- the small is part of the great
as the great is part of the small --
A drop of blood is a whole world, with a sun at its center
and planets -- and stars -- the sea is a drop of blood, a tiny
part of a body -- God is within us and we are within God --
-- primitive and original light is everywhere, shining out
wherever life is found -- and
everything is movement and light --
Crystals are born and grow
like a child in the mother's womb -- and the flame of
life burns even in the hardest stone --
Death is the beginning of a new life
Crystallization --
Death is the beginning of life
We do not die -- it is the world that
dies from us --

(Manuscript T 2787, probably 1895)

A short account such as this can only touch on the fascinating question of Munch's religious faith and his philosophical insights. Yet the question obviously holds great importance for us in our efforts to understand his art. Much has been written in an attempt to explain the symbolic work of the 1890s, less on the fruits of his maturity and old age. Here again we must be careful about how far we allow ourselves to go in interpretation; but the question of Munch's beliefs may be particularly relevant to his landscape paintings. Professor Schreiner's notes and quotations from Munch's own writings make it clear that Munch saw in the visible world of nature the expression of a great life-force at work, something which he wished to celebrate -- a great underlying unity, a connection between all things which rendered the distinction between life and death meaningless. Insights such as these may help us to a new understanding, for instance, of the paintings of bathing scenes from the war years, in which the pale red naked bodies seem almost to be melting away into what in English is very appropriately termed "the living rock": human bodies unite with living nature beneath the life-giving rays of the sun in a world in which the distinction between the organic and the nonorganic disappears. Thus these apparently simple bathing scenes might be seen as the poetic expression of the great order in the cosmos. Perhaps similar observations might be made about the first landscapes done at Ljan around the turn of the century, or about the great paintings of starry skies from the 1920s, or to those springtime pictures with the red barn done at Ekely in the late 1920s, in which nature is shown once again awakening to new life and another summer.

From: Alan Jenkins, "Edvard Munch by himself" (review of 1 exhibit and 3 books about Edvard Munch), published in The Times Literary Supplement (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/subject_by_subject/subject.aspx?path=/subject%20by%20subject/art_and_architecture/; viewed 19 November 2005):

MUNCH BY HIMSELF
Royal Academy of Arts, until December 11

MUNCH BY HIMSELF
Iris Mueller-Westermann
Royal Academy of Arts

EDVARD MUNCH: Behind the scream
Sue Prideaux
Yale University Press

THE PRIVATE JOURNALS OF EDVARD MUNCH
J. Gill Holland, editor University of Wisconsin Press

...Edvard was born in 1863 into one of Norway's most distinguished families - artists, churchmen, historians and writers of national importance loom among his forebears. ...his own father, an army doctor and Lutheran zealot, had put the fear of God in his son as well. Edvard expressed it thus:

"My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious - to the point of insanity. From him I inherited the seeds of madness.

Illness, madness and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle . . . threatening me with hell and eternal damnation."
..[Edvard's] mother... succumbed to [tuberculosis] when Edvard was five. "I know that your beloved Papa will not fail you in exhortations and admonitions", she wrote pathetically to her brood on her deathbed, and she was right.

The rest of Edvard's childhood was dominated by Papa's depressions and pious rages, reminders that Mama was watching... He almost died at the age of thirteen, and a year later it was the turn of his beloved elder sister Sophie. He had looked to her for comfort after their mother's death, and he never fully recovered from this loss. Nor did he ever forget the scene (Edvard watching helplessly while Sophie, terrified, pleading to be allowed to live, attempted to lift herself from her wicker chair in her dying moments), the injustice and cruelty of her death, the deafness or indifference of God to their father's prayers. Before long a younger sister, Laura, had begun her own descent into schizophrenia and Edvard had lost his own faith, but not, it seems, his terror of an arbitrary and everlasting "punishment". Relations with his father were strained in the extreme...

Kristiania (Oslo) establishment [which Edvard Munch joined as an adult], was in its intensity and inwardness the basis of everything he did thereafter. He had also fallen under the spell of the anarchist-nihilist-atheist-proto-existentialist Hans Jaeger, whose programme of women's emancipation and free love found many supporters, male and female, among the Kristiania Bohemians to whom he was ringleader and lord of misrule.

Because monogamy was for the bourgeois, Jaeger especially approved of three-sided relationships, and it wasn't long before Munch had one of his own. He was initiated into sex by the "liberated", much-desired Milly Thaulow (the wife of a naval surgeon and sister-in-law to Frits Thaulow, one of Munch's first patrons and a cousin); or, as he put it, "I had the misfortune to suffer passionate love . . .and for several years I was close to insanity". Adulterous and almost incestuous, the affair fuelled his overwhelming fear of damnation. When not painting or entertaining his mistress in his studio, Munch drank away the days with the bohemians, returning at night to his Tante Karen's cooking and a deadly atmosphere of paternal consternation...

Back in Kristiania there was another catastrophic affair, this time with the wealthy Tulla Larsen. Though he had arrived long before at a sort of replacement (natural) religion, based on the indestructibility of matter and the cycle of the generations, Munch was by now inwardly convinced that marriage, children, "normal" life would never be possible for him. His genetic fears, powerful enough, also screened an even more virulent anxiety: that his creative impulse was incompatible with a woman's demands, and could only survive in solitude. Or perhaps a deeper anxiety even than this. The affair ended with a struggle in which a shot was fired, and one of Munch's fingers took the bullet....

Perhaps he knew that these paintings represented a dead end, of more than one kind. In 1908, a year after he painted them, he suffered a serious breakdown, brought on by alcoholic poisoning. After recovering in a Copenhagen clinic he returned to Norway, and spent the second half of his life in a succession of country houses, not too far from Kristiania but not close enough to be within easy reach of the surviving Bohemians - those faces to the fore of the peanut-crunching crowd that surrounds the crucified artist of "Golgotha" (1900). After 1909, self-immolation gave way to self-protection. There would be no more drunken episodes, and the women welcomed into his life now were young, wholesome, eager to serve - in domestic roles, as models, and perhaps more (Prideaux leaves this open). Whether they were also his mistresses or not, Munch's life from this point irresistibly suggests a destiny implicit in his name - which means "monk". Always to some degree solitary and unreachable, no matter what the company, now he truly was "Munch by himself".

From: Boe, page 31:

1863. Edvard Munch born in Loten, Norway on December 12, son of military doctor Christian Munch and his wife Laura Cathrine.

1868. The artist's mother dies of tuberculosis and her sister Karen Bjolstad takes over the household.

1877. His sister Sophie dies of tuberculosis at the age of 15.

1879. Enters the Technical College with the intention of becoming an engineer.

1880. Decides to start his career as a painter.

1881. Enters the Royal Drawing School.

1882-83. Paints under the direction of Christian Krohg. Attends Frits Thaulow's "open-air academy" at Modum.

1885. First stay, three weeks, in Paris. Paints portrait of Jensen-Hjell. Begins The Sick Child, The Day After, Puberty. Comes into contact with the bohemian circle, led by Hans Jaeger, of naturalist painters and intellectuals in Kristiania (Oslo).

1889-90. First solo exhibition in Kristiania. Paints Inger on the Beach. Travels to Paris on a state scholarship. Lives in Neuilly and St. Cloud while attending Leon Bonnat's art school. Sees work of the Neo-Impressionists, van Gogh, and Gauguin.

1891. Paints Melancholy (Jappe on the Beach).

1892. Invited to exhibit at the Verein der Ber liner Kiinstler. After violent debate the exhibition is closed, and the resulting scandal makes Munch famous in Germany.

1893. In Berlin frequents the circle of Richard Dehmel, the poet Stanislaw Przybyszewski, Julius Meyer-Graefe, August Strindberg, and the contributors to the journal Pan.

1894. Produces first lithographs and etchings.

1896. Prints colored lithographs and first woodcuts at Auguste Clot's establishment in Paris. Designs lithograph for the production of Peer Gynt at the Theatre de 1'Oeuvre.

1897. Buys a small house in Asgardstrand on the Oslo fjord.

1898-1901. Travels in Germany, Italy, and France. Spends summers in Asgardstrand. Twice undergoes rest-visits in a sanatorium.

1902. Exhibits the The Frieze of Life in Berlin.

1906-07. Drafts decor designs for Max Reinhardt's productions of Ibsen's Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. Decorates the foyer of Reinhardt's Kammerspiele, Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

1907. Spends summer in Warnemiinde on the Baltic. Paints The Green Room, The Death of Marat, and Bathing Men.

1908. Paints Mason and Mechanic, first of a series about modern industrial life. In the autumn suffers a nervous collapse and enters Dr. Daniel Jacobson's clinic in Copenhagen.

1909. Returns to Norway to live at Kragero. Paints life-size portraits and landscapes. Begins designing murals for competition for the decoration of Oslo University Festival Hall.

1910. Buys the property Ramme by Hvitsten on the Oslo fjord.

1916. Buys the estate of Ekely in Skoyen outside Oslo. Oslo University unveils the murals which include The Sun.

1922. Paints murals for the canteen of the Freia Chocolate factory.

1930. A blood vessel bursts in Munch's right eye.

1937. Eighty-two of Munch's works are branded "degenerate" by the Germans. Munch gives financial support to the young painter Ernst Wilhelm Nay.

1940. Refuses to have any contact with the German invaders or the Quisling government.

1944. Dies on January 23 at Ekely. Bequeaths to the municipality of Oslo all of the works in his possession, including 1,000 paintings, 15,400 etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts, 4,500 watercolors and drawings, and six sculptures.

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