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Sex, Blood, and Symbolism: The Shot That Made Edvard Munch Scream

Edvard Munch was not what one would call a happy soul. After all, this was the man who painted “The Scream”. By the age of five he had lost his mother to disease, his favorite sister followed her nine years later, his father was an overly pious depressive, and madness, poverty, and ill health haunted the family. After studying in Paris, Munch returned to Oslo (then called Christiana) in 1897 at the age of 34 a relatively successful aritst… you know, for a guy who made his name painting his mother on her deathbed. Then he struck up an affair with Tulla Larsen, the rather independent daughter of a local wine merchant.

Munch’s works tell much of what he was like in life—colorful, bold, turbulent, and dark. Larsen soaked up these qualities, apparently begging Munch to marry her. But the artist had other ideas. “Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage,” he wrote of himself in the third person. “His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.” So insistent was Larsen about marriage and so against it was Munch, that the painter fled his hometown and the heiress’ large fortune in 1900 for Berlin, where he also found success. But acceptance didn’t quiet his demons, and Munch found himself in many a barroom brawl with his peers in the art scene.
Larsen, perhaps as damaged as Munch was, set out to Berlin to recapture her man. During a period of planned reconciliation, Larsen made her way into Munch’s apartment and waited for him naked on his bed, feigning death, which had been Munch’s constant companion in art and life. Without him, she said, she was dead already. Munch was not amused. While he attempted to remove her, she produced a gun from the sheets, pointing at her head, threatening suicide if he did not take her back. We’ll never know if it was an idle threat, but we do know that the pistol was loaded as, when the two struggled over the weapon, it discharged, nearly blowing off two of the painter’s fingers. The affair ended then, and Larsen married a younger colleague of Munch’s, adding further embarrassment to the humiliation. Always one to make his private terrors public art, Munch painted three works drawing directly from the incident, “Still Life (The Murderess)”, “The Death of Marat I” (top image), and “The Death of Marat II” (above, left).
While Edvard Munch (seen above right in “Self-Portrait with Cigarette”) didn’t have the most enjoyable of lives, his prodigious output and talent has transformed his home city of Oslo into a hotbed of arts and arts tourism. Tracking the troubled life of its greatest painter across its streets, our “Art + Travel Europe: Step into the Lives of Five Famous Painters” is an indispensable guide to Oslo and four other cities that were home to four of Europe’s other great, troubled artists from their highest moments to their lowest lows.
images: (top) Edvard Munch, Death of Marat, 1907. Munch Museum, Oslo; (bottom left) Edvard Munch, Death of Marat II, 1907. Munch Museum, Oslo; Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1885. National Gallery, Oslo. All images ©2010 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

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