Mention the name Edvard Munch and most people conjure up a vision of his iconic painting The Scream (1893), widely considered to be the quintessential work of a wholly original, albeit mentally unbalanced artist. In “Becoming Edvard Munch,” Jay A. Clarke—Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago—challenges the commonly-held belief that Munch was mentally ill, arguing that the Norwegian artist carefully crafted his image in an attempt to make his paintings more marketable. At the same time, Clarke maintains that Munch made a conscious decision to avoid revealing his artistic influences (hoping to shape his posthumous reputation by advancing the notion that he possessed a singular vision), which perhaps led art historians to rely too heavily on psychobiography to explain Munch and his work.
Convincing the public that Munch is misunderstood is a tall order, and in a roundabout way Clarke acknowledges as much, writing, “The Scream has become so associated with modern anxiety and personal torment …” that it may be difficult for casual observers to re-orient themselves in relation to his creations. Using personal correspondence, period criticism, and hundreds of color reproductions of the works of both Munch and his European contemporaries, Clarke makes a convincing case that Munch is indeed misperceived, or at least viewed in an oversimplified light. Never mind the psychiatric and related physical issues he dealt with at various times in his life; “Munch remained in control of his public image, his exhibition and marketing strategies, and his artistic production” all the while, asserts the author.
Whether or not this book (released in conjunction with a recent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago) has any significant impact on the public’s perception of Munch remains to be seen, and Clarke seems to recognize that the odds are against it. “For many decades, it has been easier to see [Munch] as the caricature he has become: a human version of the tormented figure in The Scream, perpetually in the midst of an emotional and existential crisis,” he writes. If nothing else, readers of “Becoming Edvard Munch” will have the opportunity to discover what Clarke refers to as the “other Munchs”—facets of a complex individual that have been lost to all but the most attentive students of art history.