In Focus: Edvard Munch’s Madonna — sanctity, fertility and mortality in a picture as startling as The Scream

Edvard Munch's fame rests on 'The Scream', but his other works are equally absorbing. Lilias Wigan paid a visit to the British Museum's exhibition and took an in-depth look at one of the masterpieces on display.

Renowned for his iconic work, The Scream, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is a household name, but has been underrepresented in London in recent times. That has been put right this summer by Edvard Munch: love and angst at the British Museum, a collaboration that has brought together almost 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum with the British Museum’s own collection and other loans from across Europe.

The show is a reminder that Munch stands triumphant in his uncanny ability to describe emotions of the human condition. Using experimental printing techniques, he tackled themes of love, desire, grief and death. Love and angst has caused a stir this summer, but if you’ve not been yet then now is the time to go: it closes in a few weeks’ time, on July 21.

Edvard Munch on the trunk in his studio, 1902. Credit: Munchmuseet

Among the treasures on display is a rare monochrome lithograph of The Scream. Munch made it following a painted version and two drawings of the image, but it was this print that was so widely circulated in his lifetime. A translation of its rare inscription reads: ‘I felt a great Scream pass through nature’, suggesting that the person depicted is hearing the scream rather than screaming.


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The Scream 1895, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas Widerberg

The Scream 1895, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Private Collection, Norway. Photo: Thomas Widerberg

Afflicted by family death and illness – both his mother and favourite sister died of tuberculosis and his younger sister Laura was diagnosed with mental illness – Munch was bohemian by nature and travelled extensively across Europe. He believed in ideals of open expression and free love, often resulting in turbulent affairs.

Perhaps the most tortured and passionate of these was with Tulla Larsen. After an explosive argument that ended in a shooting incident in which Munch’s left hand was permanently damaged, he sawed his painting Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen (c. 1905) in half; the two halves have now been reunited for the exhibition.

Unlike many artists, Munch was careful to keep hold of his printing moulds – known as matrices. He often duplicated them, revisiting motifs either from scratch or on existing matrices. Exhibited alongside the many prints are the actual materials he used to transfer ink onto paper, allowing us an in-depth insight into his process and dexterity with the method. One example is Madonna (1895/1902) – the lithograph illustrated – to which he returned at least twice, changing it around 1913 so that locks of hair curled toward the woman’s stomach. In 1902, however, the matrice was used in its original form, with up to three experimental colours.

The erotic image, framed by explicit depictions of wriggling sperm and a foetus, provoked public outrage. While alluding to Munch’s beliefs in free love, the lithograph also directly addressed the obsession with sex of Hans Jaegar, the anarchist leader of the bohemian group in Kristiania, who inspired Munch to paint his own emotional and psychological state. Munch was acutely aware of his own psyche and once wrote: ‘The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.’

Munch made an earlier version of Madonna, which he gave to Jaegar while he was serving time in prison for ‘blasphemy and violation of modesty and morality,’ after the publication of his book From the Kristiania Bohemians in 1885. He painted many versions of the composition as well as the print. A bare-breasted, half-length figure faces the viewer frontally with her head tipped to the side – in pleasure or pain? – her trestles of dark hair falling around sensuous curves.

Detail from Madonna, 1895/1902 by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Credit: Munchmuseet

Detail from Madonna, 1895/1902 by Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Credit: Munchmuseet

Munch references themes of fertilisation, procreation and ultimately death, but his true representation of the female form is enigmatic. Her position could be interpreted in two ways; she could be lying beneath her lover, in the act of intercourse, or rising dominantly above him. A blood red halo encircles her head, further alluding to themes of sanctity, fertility and mortality.

Despite the positioning of her arms, one behind her head as though surrendering and one behind her back as though captive, the woman seems to assert female power and is glorified through her strength and vigour.

Munch was not known to be a Christian. Whether or not the picture is intended to depict the Virgin Mary is disputed, but, in his own words, it shows a ‘Woman in a state of surrender – where she acquires the afflicted beauty of a Madonna’.

‘Edvard Munch: love and angst’ is at the British Museum until July 21— tickets £17 (£14 conc), under-16s free