“As long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I have tried to express in my art.” – E. Munch
Do you know who is the person from the title? Some of you do and some of you don’t. Much better known is the name of the painting The Scream, rendered in several versions by a man with the name from the title. That painting is found everywhere as an imitation, a parody, a postmodernist version of everything, an icon of a culture marked by fear and existential crisis, a representation of the 20th century characterized by “scream of nature”. Eight years ago, it was chosen as one of four paintings by the Norwegian post office for a series of stamps on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch.
How did I come to be interested in this unusual and brilliant artist? To explain this, I have to enter the psyche of the past, 27 years younger, dedicated to the profession of the psychiatrist and understanding of the expressive nature of the visual art. With the ambition, to penetrate the essence of the creative process. Where did it lead? To a lake in northern Minnesota, in the late fall of 1994, in a complete isolation, with books, two weeks, maybe three, for the preparation of a series of lectures. My desire was to find an answer about the process of creativity in the art of the mentally ill, famous artists, in psychoanalysis, and the art of my wife. These preparations were rewarded, a few months later, in a public appearance, at the college, with weekly lectures in February 1995, which was usually the coldest month, but fortunately, that year, warmer than usual, so the attendance was undisturbed by the weather.
The success of this endeavor gave birth to an idea, an analysis of Munch’s life and work. A painstaking process. In an era when it was not easy to make slides. The computer was still not used for this purpose. Taking photos of what was wanted and making positive images in the photo lab was the only way. I opted for slides without text, just reproductions of paintings and photographs. I provided narration, a lecturer of high style, unconventional, for listeners, mental health professionals. C’est la vie. The desire for a lecture that would be memorable prevailed. And so, day after day, a compulsive commitment to collecting everything written or available about his life. Especially relevant was the death of his mother at the age of five, the death of his sister, who replaced his mother, at the age of fifteen, and a father who did not understand him and who also died early. In addition, diseases followed him all his life. He wrote in his journal: “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.”
But that did not stop him from displaying his artistic talent that led him to the metropolises of Europe, Paris and Berlin, where new artistic movements flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. He contributed to this trend and further development of post-impressionism, symbolism, and especially expressionism. For the next twenty years he lived intensely in every way which brought him to the brink of insanity. He expressed his artistic manifesto with these words, “I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”
Hence the main themes of his art were human emotions, fear, melancholy, grief, love, and death. He often took himself as a subject and an object using events from his life that triggered strong feelings. Numerous masterpieces were created during this period, including the aforementioned The Scream (1893), which is the most striking and original work breaking away with all traditions. This image has been interpreted in many ways, but the majority agree it is an universal expression of existential horror.
He knew he was in the clutches of a mental disorder, but like many other artists he believed, “My sufferings are a part of me and my art. They are no different from me, and destroying them would destroy my art. I want to keep that suffering … “. Nevertheless, he went to sanatoriums several times, voluntarily or at the urging of friends, due to paranoia, alcoholism, depression, and suicidality. But nothing had changed until he developed a severe psychosis with hallucinations, which forced him into a seven-month treatment in Copenhagen, after which he retreated to a peaceful and solitary life, away from the lights of the metropolis. He lived alone for the rest of his life in the remote part of Norway, with his paintings he treated as living beings and had difficulties in separating from them.
My Grand Rounds lecture aroused great interest because it was not typical for a psychiatrist to talk about the art in a type of lectures usually dedicated to topics of how to practice the “craft” in the field of mental health. But perhaps because of that unexpectedness, it was remembered and 13 years later I was contacted by a member of a local philosophy club to talk about Munch again. As a reward, I was given the latest biography book (Edward Munch: Behind The Scream by Sue Prideaux). And now, after another 13 years have passed, I return to Munch with this text to remind myself of a time when my interest in creativity was at its peak. For the next ten years I gave many lectures about creativity, especially the relationship between mental illness and creativity, using examples of Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Robert Schumann, and others.
As a result of my learning I concluded that mental illness is not a prerequisite for creativity, although it is true that certain mental states can inspire it by the unusual ideas, unconventionality in thinking and behavior, as well as through increased, and sometimes obsessive, motivation. Creative activity is pleasurable due to subjective experience of beauty, sublimation of drives, integration of inner dissonance, and adaptation to the demands of social environment. Although the names of celebrities with mental disorders resonate in the collective consciousness, my research has led me to believe that creativity is related to health and that nurturing a healthy personality encourages creativity through self-actualization, positive feelings towards others, development of original and critical thinking, and commitment to lifelong learning.
Creativity is an innate characteristic of the brain, necessary for the development of the human species and cultural evolution. Exceptional people are endowed with exceptional creativity conditioned by a set of specific circumstances. One of my mentors in this field (Arthur Ludwig) in the book The Price of Greatness came up with the “template” for the eminence: special talents or abilities as children; parental support in their development; early opposition to established beliefs; ability of loneliness and self-confidence; physical disability or severe illness in early life; striving for dominance and supremacy in the chosen discipline; and a restless, obsessive state of psychological discomfort that seeks relief. I think that the hero of this text, Edvard Munch, fulfills most of the determinants of this “template”. I encourage you to take any illustrated biography dedicated to him and enjoy the images of his paintings that entice with the power of feeling, dark resonant colors, as well as depiction of a human figure in various tonalities. He left a lasting mark in the history of art, especially due to the expression of individual psychology through intense color and semi-abstraction.