( 1863-1944) Norwegian painter; born at Löten; died at Ekely, near Oslo. After passing his early years and studying in Oslo, Munch spent almost twenty years abroad, in Paris, in the south of France, in Italy, and later in Germany, travelling a great deal and frequenting literary avant-garde circles. Often he spent the summer in Norway and, after recovering from a serious nervous crisis, he returned for good to his homeland in 1908. During the thirty years that passed before his death he worked in the country, in the jealously guarded solitude of his homes at Aagaardstrand, Kragerö, Ramme and Ekely. In Munch's painting there appears the ancient face of the Nordic world, a world animated by forces which still remain extremely close to their source. The unreality of dream mingles with the reality of an imposing and awesome Nature. Like the Scandinavian writers of the same period, he saw the life of man first on the psychological plane. But transposing this frequently too literary vision, Munch conferred a mythic power upon it through his art. Thus he created real symbols that far surpassed the allegories of a Boecklin or a Hodler. Plastic problems were only secondary and remained subordinate to the requirements of expression.
His work underwent the influence of Impressionist painting chiefly after his first stay in Paris in 1885. In 1890, in Paris again, he admired Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. His colours became more clear and expression was concentrated in large forms with simple and rounded contours. The expressive density of the pictures of this period seems due to the painter's obsession with certain subjects: death, which had made an impression on him when he was still a child, painful loneliness, melancholy terror before the immensity of Nature, and especially love, which appeared to him a terrible and threatening power. For him, woman personified the Vampire who, in the world of Strindberg, triumphs over man. The principal pictures after 1890 belong to an ensemble he called The Frieze of Life. This frieze was meant to be 'a poem of life, love and death', in which the suffering and joy of each man would meet. The Dance of Life ( 1899- 1900) is in the centre of the frieze. There the painful loneliness is overcome, and man's destiny, in its misery as in its joy, is intimately linked with the great forces of Nature. Munch's landscapes express, without allegory, a similar understanding. Dark blue trees of simple, dense forms stand out against snow with the power of primitive signs; a naked peninsula, green and ochre, a gigantic paw of earth, crawls towards the water of the fjord and, in the starlit night, the spell is at last complete. The picture of Girls on the Bridge ( 1901) is in the same spirit. For the University of Oslo, in 1909-1911, Munch painted mural decorations, in which a huge sun, the symbol of force and light, stands out in the centre. These murals belong to the second period of his work, which is characterized by an increasingly greater freedom and light, revealed in other decorations that he undertook in 1921-1922 for the dining hall of a factory. From then on colours became bright, almost 'Fauvist'. Munch was increasingly liberated from his obsession with the terrible forces of Nature, and the mystery of life, round which his work continued to be organized, seemed to become a mystery in broad daylight. This is particularly clear in the poignant series of self-portraits done in his last years. Many of his pictures exist in several versions. This is partially due to his habit of making a replica for himself of each canvas that was sold.
The great themes of Munch's painting occur again in his engraved work, which is particularly important. Both in black-and-white and in the simplified colouring of lithography and woodcuts Munch frequently achieved a concision that gave the image a strength sometimes surpassing that of his painting. Munch's art, with that of Van Gogh and Ensor, was the first great manifestation of Expressionism on a European level. He can indeed be reproached with being dominated by preoccupations that go beyond the limits of painting.
However, he was filled with a desire to make a synthesis of modern form and symbolic expression; and his influence was felt in the development of art wherever such a synthesis was being sought after. In Germany, for example, the Expressionism of the Brücke arose out of contact with Munch's work.