SFMOMA is currently displaying a major exhibit on the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). The exhibition does not include his most famous painting, The Scream, which is one of those rare works (along with American Gothic, the Mona Lisa, and a handful of others) that has become a pop culture icon. I would imagine that the guards at SFMOMA are tired of people asking them where The Scream is. It doesn’t travel; you have to go to Oslo to see it.
As a Swede, I was of course familiar with other works from Munch’s oeuvre; Stockholm’s Thielska Galleriet has a large collection, including the painting Despair, which is on loan to SFMOMA for its exhibit and is a close cousin to The Scream. What kind of life experience would lead an artist to paint works like The Scream, Despair and numerous depictions of sick and dying people? I thought it might be interesting to read a biography of Munch, and then I saw that Norwegian cartoonist Steffen Kverneland had written a graphic novel about him. Coming in at almost 300 pages, this is a pretty hefty volume and really gives you a lot of information about his life, work and background.
The book takes a non-linear approach, beginning with his 1892 sojourn to Berlin, where he created quite an uproar. His works “were perceived as a direct insult to art, an anarchistic provocation… Munch was viewed as a living example of what would happen to a German painter if he allowed himself to be influenced by the hedonistic French impressionism.” Munch relished the controversy, and quickly became a much talked-about figure. He met Swedish playwright and artist August Strindberg, who becomes a major character in Munch’s life, as well as in this book. I really love the way Kverneland draws Strindberg, all harsh angles and dark shadows. The two Scandinavians developed a friendship, “even though Strindberg was also difficult, obstinate and distrustful… Munch told a friend that Strindberg ‘had the habit of suddenly tripping me, so that I lay flat on my back in the street.'”
We don’t get into Munch’s early life until the midpoint of the book, where we learn his mother died when Edvard was only 5. His father, a physician, became “a disheartened religious zealot” after his wife’s death. “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” wrote Munch. “A mother who died early—gave me the seed of consumption—a distraught father—piously religious, verging on madness—gave me the seeds of insanity.” To make matters worse, Munch’s sister Sophie, older than Edvard by only a year, died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. Her death became a recurring motif in Munch’s art, including the Sick Child paintings displayed at SFMOMA. By this point, it should be pretty clear why much of his work is so disturbing.
The creation of The Scream is the novel’s climax; Kverneland depicts himself along with his pal Lars as they go in search of the exact location that served as the vantage point for the painting. Then there’s a fun little interlude about the theft of the painting from the Munch Museum in 2004, with the burglars drawn as the Beagle Boys from the Donald Duck comic books.
Periodic detours like that ensure that Munch is far from a typical biography, but by the end, I felt I had learned a ton about the artist and I thoroughly enjoyed Kverneland’s stunning artwork. This is an excellent companion piece to the SFMOMA show, and like that exhibition, proves that Edvard Munch deserves to be celebrated for his whole body of work and not just his most famous painting.