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Art and Images in Psychiatry
January 2004

Anxiety (Angst)

Author Affiliations
 

JAMES CHARRISMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(1):15-16. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.1.15

Sickness, insanity and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.

— Edvard Munch, age 70 years1(p31)

BORN IN LØTEN, NORWAY, EDVARD MUNCH (1863-1944) was the firstScandinavian painter to establish an international reputation. His artisticcreativity spanned more than 6 decades. During those years, he establishedhis reputation as a portraitist and landscape painter and painstakingly exploredthe human passions. Munch strongly influenced the development of German Expressionism.His life was filled with separation and loss, and these experiences are reflectedin his art. The second of 5 children, he was traumatized by the death of hismother when he was 5 years of age and that of his 15-year-old sister, Sophie,at age 14 years. Both died of tuberculosis, a disease he contracted as a teenagerbut survived.2 Despite being descended froma prominent Norwegian lineage, his family was relatively impoverished andlived in tenement houses in the workers' suburb of Oslo, where they were exposedto tuberculosis.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norwegian. Anxiety(Angst), 1894. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. CopyrightArtists Rights Society, New York, NY. Photographed by Erich Lessing/Art ResourceNY.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norwegian. Anxiety(Angst), 1894. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. CopyrightArtists Rights Society, New York, NY. Photographed by Erich Lessing/Art ResourceNY.

Unable to accept the loss of his wife and daughter, his father, ChristianMunch, an army medical corps physician, became depressed and had episodicoutbursts of temper. An extreme religious fundamentalist, he believed thatthese deaths represented divine punishment; he had frightening visions ofhis own and his surviving children's eternal damnation and sought solace inpenitential prayer.2 These experiences fundamentallyshaped Munch's character and his work. His most significant early painting, The Sick Child, depicts his sister's terminal illness.It shows a teenaged girl propped up against a pillow in a large armchair nextto an older woman, who bows her head in despair and grief. Munch completedmany versions of this painting, and all of the essential elements of his futurestyle appear in it.

Munch felt that God should have averted these family disasters. He ultimatelyrejected traditional religion, initially adopting a philosophical view oflife based on the Norwegian writer Hans Jaeger's dictum of the primacy ofpersonal experience. Jaeger was an anarchist who advocated an antibourgeoislifestyle of emancipation and freedom focused on sexual liberation, socialequality, and the rejection of Christianity. Subsequently Munch, like SørenKierkegaard (The Concept of Anxiety; Fear and Trembling) and Henrik Ibsen, acknowledged anxiety as an existential problem.In later life, he carefully read Kierkegaard and spoke of the similaritiesin their views. Munch never mocked religion and strove, as had Vincent vanGogh and Paul Gauguin before him, to make his personal experiences and spirituallonging the focus of his art.3

Munch began painting at age 17 years in Christiania (now Oslo). A stategrant awarded in 1885 enabled him to study in Paris, France. For 20 yearsthereafter, Munch worked chiefly in Paris and Berlin, Germany. Initially influencedby Impressionism and Postimpressionism, he later developed his highly personalExpressionistic style and content that emphasized images of illness, anxiety,and death. In 1892, an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin so shocked theauthorities that the show was closed.

His painting The Scream carefully reconstructsa moment of anxiety in which he stood alone and trembling.4The Scream shows the panic experienced when one individualfeels totally isolated. Anxiety depicts the collectivedespair and desperation of a group of people, yet it is based on his own anxietyin viewing them. Munch writes of the silence he experienced when his anxietypeaked and he became dissociated from his emotions. He watched a crowd passby like ghosts, but he saw through their masks and there was suffering inall of them: "[P]ale corpses—who restlessly hurry—rush hitherand thither along a tortuous path whose end was the grave."1(p107)Anxiety represents the failure of loveand how it leads to alienation from others.

Throughout the 1890s, he depicted variations on these themes of anxietyin both prints and paintings. These paintings were displayed in his Friezeof Life exhibit on 4 walls in the Berlin Secession Exhibition in 1902, withthe title A Series of Pictures From Life. Accordingto Munch, the paintings represent moods. They are impressions of the lifeof the soul, and taken together they portray one aspect of the battle betweenman and woman called love. The paintings were organized into 4 themes: Love'sAwakening, Love Blossoms and Dies, Life Anxiety (Fear of Life), and Death. The Scream and Anxiety (Angst) were included in the Life Anxiety section.

Of The Scream, Munch wrote,

I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. Ifelt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped,leaned against a railing, dead tired (my friends looked at me and walked on),and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword . . .over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on. I stood theretrembling with fright. And I felt a loud unending scream piercing nature.1(p90)

Munch wrote that he painted the sky like real blood, with the colorsscreaming. The universal appeal of this work may lie in its synesthetic effectlinking the visual image, emotion, and hearing; the colors spread out on thecanvas like sound waves. The viewer is drawn to the expression of anguishin the face of the central figure, and likewise, in Munch's description ofthe painting, the reader to his refrain: "My friends walked on." Munch isreferring to a dramatic sunset along the Oslo fjord that often occurs in lateautumn after heavy rains, when the sun shines on the clouds and mist, producingstripes and tongues of intense reds in a blue sky. He experienced panic whenthe red color reminded him of coagulated blood. Subsequently he told a patronthat at the time he had "a great fear of open spaces, found it difficult tocross a street and felt great dizziness at the slightest height."4(p67)

Painted a year later, Anxiety depicts the samelandscape, style, and colors. The same 2 ships are shown in perspective, suggestingthat the figures are standing farther down on the same bridge. An advancingcrowd of people dressed in black have replaced the screaming figure. The wide-eyed,green-faced, anonymous crowd is like that shown in an earlier painting, Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892). Anxiety is a composite of that painting and The Scream, but now Munch shortens the viewer's perspective, lowering the pointof view so that the viewer is face to face with the crowd.

In his autobiographical St Cloud Manifesto5 (1892),Munch links his anxiety to the pains of love as he describes a fleeting encounterwith his estranged married lover, Milly Thaulow, whom he refers to as "MrsHeiberg." The narrative is directly relevant to Anxiety, in which the woman in the foreground with the bonnet and facing theviewer is probably Mrs Heiberg. What is striking is the silence he feels ashe is seemingly dissociated from his emotions, as these haunted faces passby and stare:

Never before had he seen her so beautiful. She greeted him witha weak smile and went on. . . . He felt so empty and alone. Why did he notstop and tell her that she was the only one . . . that he never appreciatedher enough, that everything was his fault. She looked so sad. . . . Maybeshe is the one who believes that he does not care for her. . . . What a spinelesswretch you are. . . . He worked himself into a frenzy. Suddenly everythingseemed strangely quiet. The noise from the street seemed far away. . . . Heno longer felt his legs. All the people who passed by looked so strange andodd, and he felt they were all staring at him, all these faces pale in theevening light.5(p40)

Munch was prone to emotional instability and agoraphobia,6 describinghimself at the breaking point at the time he painted TheScream. He worried about his father's nervousness and religious melancholiaand his sister's mental health. Her mental illness was diagnosed while hewas working on his Frieze of Life; she, like his grandfather, died in a mentalinstitution. Despite Munch's symptoms of anxiety and psychodynamic speculationabout his life story,7 his creativity allowedhim to transform these experiences into art and become one of the best-knownpainters of his time.

In the immediacy of his imagery, Munch vivifies those moments of existencewhen we are confronted by indifferent forces of nature at times of separationor loss. Ultimately his art focuses on an individual's confrontation withhis or her own natural limitations. How does one face love and death whilemaintaining a sense of integrity? He sees sexuality and death as encroachmentson self-conscious identity and a threat to the coherence of the self.8 For Munch, dignity could be maintained with an acknowledgmentof life's uncertainty when lacking the capacity to master its demands.

References
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