As you walk into the inner world of Edvard Munch, the man who created The Scream, it’s hard to miss the heart wrenching representations of life that permeate his early works. Every stroke on the canvas, every dab of colour and every carving on the copper plate seems to reveal a sense of loss, despair and anxiety. For many of us, the “apocalyptic masterpieces” he created symbolises the epitome of artistic expression. But for Munch, his early works are perhaps more of a collection of records that tells a personal story of inner struggles and mental conflicts.
Munch’s brutal life story is characterised by illness, loneliness and death. His experiences and psychic state constitute the very subject of his art and pain. The Sick Child depicts a devastated mother crying beside an ailing young girl, drawing upon Munch’s memory of his sister’s death from tuberculosis at the age of fifteen. It represents most of Munch’s early works, which draws upon excruciating events and emotions that he experienced since childhood. Munch’s anxiety and suffering eventually led up to a nervous breakdown and subsequent admission to a clinic in 1908.
Munch’s artistic pursuits not only failed to provide any resolution to his struggles, but aggravated his pain. What then is the value of art if it amplifies memories and experiences of emotional pain and suffering?
“For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.” – Edward Munch
On one reading, Munch’s artistic pursuits represent a therapeutic exercise that encourages the introspection of oneself. Through art, one practises self-awareness and acceptance in order to truly reflect and express one’s inner psyche. This opens up the possibility of resolving one’s mental struggles by taking the crucial first step of facing one’s fears, insecurities and emotions.
The therapeutic function of art seems questionable, however, when it also opens up the possibility of creating a perpetual and enduring source of emotional pain. Artists risk paralysing themselves in the experience of suffering, and turning themselves sick and melancholic, which much of Munch’s early works and story seem to suggest.
In only celebrating artistic pursuits as a form of healing, we neglect the many risks and emotional burdens that come with it.
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