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In the autumn of 1908, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) admitted himself toa private psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen, Denmark. His mental breakdownwas the culmination of his negative treatment by the Norwegian press, feelingsof guilt about his relationship with his family, the turbulence of his emotionallife, his sense of betrayal by his friends, and chronic insomnia.1 He felt persecuted and had increasingly abused alcohol,waking with numbness in his hands and feet and writing to a friend that hedrank like a man possessed. His involvement in brawls and fights had beenin the newspapers. In Hamburg, Germany, he had assaulted several strangersin a hotel.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norwegian. The Sun, 1912-1916.Oil on canvas; 16 ft, 11⅛ in × 25 ft, 7 in (455 × 780 cm).Aula (Assembly Hall), Oslo University, Oslo, Norway. Courtesy of the MunchMuseum, Oslo/Bridgeman Art Library. Copyright Artists Rights Society, NewYork, NY. Photographed by Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY.
He wrote to his friend Jappe Nilssen:
The crunch had to come someday. . . . but when it did, it wasfairly dramatic—after a trip to Sweden followed by four days in a massof alcohol with Sigurd Mathiesen. I had a real blackout and also some minorform of heart attack, I believe. My brain had become damaged by my continualobsessions. I am having shock treatment and massage and I feel very well inthe peaceful atmosphere here.1(p210)
He went on to write,
I was never mad . . . it was a web of events and intrigues, wovenover many years, combined with the disappointments and the drinking that hadresulted from them, which brought about my nervous breakdown.1(p210) . . . This time I have been given such a serious reminder thatI will find the power to stay away from that poison.1(p212)
When his physician advised him to complete a series of drawings on hisexperiences in the realms of love,1(p211) Munch embarked on his lithographic fable, Alpha andOmega. These drawings may reflect the faithlessness of his first love,Emilie (Milly) Thaulow, who had lied to him, and events leading to the shootingin which he lost 2 joints of his left ring finger in a dispute with TullaLarsen, which ended their tumultuous relationship. These 22 drawings illustratehis hatred of the woman who awakened his love, then betrayed him. When hekills the woman in the fable, her deformed face reverts to that of the womanhe loved. At the end, he is killed by her half-animal children, the productsof her unfaithfulness. Thus, Munch recognizes the futility of his hatred;psychologically the old Munch, so embroiled in passion and resentment, dies.He wrote, "A strange calm came over me as I was working on this series—itwas as if all malice let go of me."2(p83) Eight months later, in April 1909, he emerged from the clinic fullyrestored. Prelinger notes that there was a new visual immediacy to his workand that he seemed more attuned to the world around him, using nature andlight for their own qualities rather than primarily "as projections of hisinner experiences."3(p38)
Munch returned to Norway after his discharge. This decision was influencedby his being made a Knight in the Norwegian Order of St Olav and by new recognitionof his work. While he was hospitalized, an exhibit of his paintings in Norwayhad brought in 60 000 kroners in revenue. Such appreciation showed himthat Norway had not rejected him. Fourteen days after discharge, he enteredthe competition to decorate the assembly hall at Oslo University (UniversityAula) in celebration of its 100th anniversary, in 1911. On winning the commission,Munch placed his past and current work in context. He wrote that whereas theFrieze of Life paintings represent the individual's joys and sorrows, theUniversity Murals portray the powerful forces of eternity. They consist of3 large and 8 smaller panels that address the life and continuity of humankind.
The most powerful is a 27-ft-wide image of the sun rising over the fjord,spreading its life-giving rays over the whole scene. It is white hot, shownin brilliant simplicity as it brings light and life. Munch noted that thesun had given respite to his sister as she lay dying of tuberculosis. He wrote,
A straight line leads from Spring [apivotal early painting that shows his ill sister sitting in a chair on a brightmorning, with the curtains billowing and the sun illuminating the room] tothe Aula paintings. The Aula paintings are humanity as it strives toward thelight, the sun, revelation, light in times of darkness. Spring was the mortally ill girl's longing for light and warmth, forlife. The Sun in Aula was the sun shining in the window of Spring.4(p209)
As he grew older, Munch wrote of the unity in nature—not onlyin plants, animals, and humans but also in organic life through the processof crystallization.5 For him, a work of artwas like a crystal. He had struggled with the Christian idea of an afterlifethat his father so firmly believed in. Munch's view was more mystical, thathe would delight in passing back into the earth and become one with it: "[F]rommy decaying body will grow flowers, and I shall be in them."2(p85) From 1947 until 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded at UniversityAula with The Sun in the background. The last recipientof the prize before the ceremony was moved to Oslo City Hall was the DalaiLama. Munch's The Sun seemed a fitting backdrop forhis Nobel Lecture about the unity of life and how we must learn to live inharmony and peace with each other and nature.
Harris JC. The Sun. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(2):116. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.2.116
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