‘A shilling life will give you all the facts,’ Auden wrote. This one will cost you a lot more than a shilling, and will give you the facts, but not a lot more.
Edvard Munch should have been a glorious subject. He was handsome, brilliant and doomed. He came from Norway, which means suicidal gloom to start with (vide Ibsen and Strindberg). Then there was his family, tainted on both sides with TB and madness. TB carried off his mother when he was five, his beloved sister Sophie (as we know from his second-most-famous painting) when he was fourteen. His own childhood was dominated by illness, of which he nearly died. His Pietist father was a rigidly religious and unimaginative man, who terrified him with hell and damnation, and with visions of his mother watching from above. But Edvard could draw; and after overcoming his father’s resistance – as inevitable as in a fairy tale – he set off on the life of an artist. And this was like a fairy tale too. First was the struggle to realise a new inner vision, in ‘soul paintings’ of grief, jealousy, melancholy, fear; the poverty and neglect, the incomprehension and outrage – pointillism would give you the pox, Munch was a madman, a hoaxer, a poisoner of art. Then came the turning of the tide, first abroad, at last at home; until Munch was a legend in his lifetime, the author of one of the most iconic images in modern art, by his forties rich, by his sixties a millionaire.
And despite all this, he was still doomed. He was mad, sometimes very. He was afraid of the dark and of silence, of open space and of mountains, of beds and of illness, of men and (especially) of women. By his late forties he had drunk himself into hallucinations, paralysis