There is probably no more fiercely recognizable image in modern art than Edvard Munch's _The Scream_ (1893). The nightmarish picture seems so essential to our way of looking at modern life that many people do not know anything of Munch's other works, which is a shame; he lived eighty years and was productive through them all. His most famous work is even in the subtitle of his first full biography written in English, _Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream_ (Yale University Press) by Sue Prideaux. The author seems particularly well suited to her subject. She is part Norwegian and has lived a life shared between Norway and England. Her grandmother was painted by Munch, and her great-uncle was one of the artist's loyal patrons. She has produced a big biography that is well-illustrated with the subject's works. This is essential. Munch wrote, "Just as Leonardo studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try from self-scrutiny to dissect what is universal in the soul." Many and varying results of the dissections in paintings and in his profuse journals are included here, making a biography that is surprisingly gripping.
Munch wrote, "Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that hovered over my cradle." He was born in 1863, and tuberculosis took his beloved mother and sister when he was a boy. His father, Munch wrote, "temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious... From him I inherited the seeds of madness." His illness kept him from attending school regularly, but he early showed artistic talent, even though he got little training in art, and often rejected the training he got. Instructors, and the public, could not understand that he had no obsession with painting with physical accuracy, but was obsessed with documenting impressions and feelings. His early career was the classic one of the starving artist, a bohemian life with many lovers (sometimes shared with others in his circle), and plenty of absinthe and other alcohol intake. Many of his great works were made when he was impoverished, but eventually he found an unlikely niche, fashionable portrait painter to the rich (or as he called them, his "Mycenaeans"). The portraits were untraditional, and often uncomplimentary, but they paid; he was to become a very rich man, although perhaps due to his years of penury, he always lived simply and fretted that the tax man was ruining him. It is perhaps not coincidental that with his increase in income came critical success, although in his own country, he suffered attacks in the press, and became reclusive and suspicious. He was able to sell his expensive portraits, but had trouble forcing himself to part with any of his personal work, insisting that his paintings were his children, and keeping them around him, even if this meant they were stacked badly, were exposed to weather, or became scratching posts for the cat.
He feared all his life that he would be touched with his family's insanity, and eventually he checked himself into a Copenhagen psychological clinic in 1908. His doctor diagnosed merely alcoholism, but he was put through a fresh air cure, heart massages, and mild charges of electricity. "I have been rather short of electricity," he wrote, but thought he was getting an excellent effect from "Galvanisation, Faradisation, and Franklinisation." None of it did as much good as the steps he took for his own cure, a method he had taught himself when he was young and could not sleep because of conflict with his father: he turned his thoughts into a drawing or painting. It was resolving life's difficulties in the arena that really mattered, in his art. His paintings thus form a spiritual biography like no other artist's. This book biography is a fine introduction to the biography on canvas.