Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Edvard Munch

Self Portrait with Cigarette, 1895
Oil on Canvas 110 x 86 cm

Royal Academy, London
22 October 2005

I had been looking forward to this exhibition, titled Munch by Himself, at the Royal Academy, for a long time and I wasn't disappointed. Given Munch’s melancholic disposition many of the works were of great interest to me, but rather than pick one of the more iconic pieces I decided to choose this wonderful self-portrait to analyse.

It was the first major piece of his that was bought by the National Gallery in Norway and consequently, was a significant breakthrough for him.

The pose is inspired by a painting he had seen by his teacher, Christian Krohg, of the Norwegian painter Gerhard Munthe in a restaurant, and a photograph of August Strindberg in top hat that is lit from below. Unlike these images the Munch self-portrait denies any surroundings except darkness. I think this painting must have also been an influence on Max Beckmann for the self portrait with cigarette that he completed in 1927.

The paint is so thin everywhere apart from the face and hands except for one or two deep shadows that these jump out at us from the gloom. Because the face and hands are lit from below he has the appearance of an actor on the stage meeting our gaze eye to eye. There are lots of swirling brushstrokes in long strokes of blue and red violet that create a very turbulent surface. This loose brushwork results in the jacket fading in and out of the ground and dribbles and runs of paint are visible at the bottom of the canvas. He seems near and yet distant due to the partial cloaking of the figure in paint.

A wisp of smoke rises from the cigarette that can be read as a metaphor for death. This also creates a distance from the viewer despite the eye contact, suggesting that we might have surprised him or caught him daydreaming? Munch has placed the figure slightly off centre to the left hand side with the head touching the top of the canvas, and I get a sense of a self assured, but lonely man.

I have since read that he painted the self-portrait as a companion to a portrait of a lover, Dagny, who came from a respectable Norwegian family. Munch created an outrage by pairing the portraits together despite the fact that, after affairs with both Munch and Strindberg, Dagny was married to a Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski!

(Dagny's own end was grim. For several years, she lived in alcoholic poverty with Przybyszewski, by whom she had two children. Then in 1901, a Polish admirer of hers gave a banquet at which the guests found the host dead in an adjoining room, having committed suicide out of love for her. He left his pistol to another Pole, called X, who loved her to distraction. He invited her to the Grand Hotel, Tbilisi, where he shot first her, then himself. He did it, he wrote in a letter to her young son, because she was "not of this world… she was the incarnation of goodness… she was God"[1])

[1] Prideuax, Sue Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream,Yale University Press, 2005 p205

©blackdog 2009


  1. A detailed and perceptive analysis of a really impressive self-portrait- interesting are your remarks about the painting style and your observation "seems near and yet distant" which might sum up the main impression. - EM is 32 years old, successful as artist, but -as you are saying- there is a feel of loneliness, deeper, inner sadness and a feel of being in distress, perhaps by experiences in his milieu he never can forget, drugs (alcohol), passions, daydreams which never can be fulfilled, a life as a cigarette burning out from two ends at the same time? A character embedded into clouds/smokes of different problems! Maybe, I too quickly tend to a psychological interpretation of this painting considering EM's biography and all the possible influences upon him - but the modern painting style and the modern feeling of life and the attitude of self-performance at the fin-de- siecle might not be ignored. If you are magnifying the painting, you cannot forget the facial expressions of EM, he wants to say much to me, but who is able to read that really?

  2. Thank you Philine - a good point about his age and inner turmoil when he painted this self portrait. I probably focused too much on what I saw rather than what he was trying to convey about himself.