Munch and the material world

“In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”

These words, written by the adolescent Edvard Munch in his diary, foretold a story of great intensity, passion and heartache, but also an approach to life and art that would make him one of the most accomplished and well known artists of his generation. For Munch, colour was the elixir of meaning and there were times when he couldn’t get enough of it – at the end of his life there were more than 260 tubes of Winsor & Newton paint, mainly Artists’ Oil Colour, found among his effects. Working with the Munch Museum in Oslo, we have been able to date a number of these tubes using Winsor & Newton catalogues.

Carving out a personal style

Munch was born in 1863 in Norway. A sickly child – his mother and sister died from tuberculosis – he spent long periods at home, which would provide considerable inspiration for his art in later life. After numerous experiments with Impressionist techniques he felt that it wasn’t delivering the depth and strength of feeling that he was looking for. He wanted to explore situations brimming with emotional content and expressive energy. This was something encouraged by his mentor, the Norwegian writer and philosopher Hans Jæger, who urged him to “write his life”. Munch was also drawn towards Jæger’s hard drinking and hard living lifestyle.

The breakthrough painting

Following his mentor’s advice, Munch embarked on a sustained period of reflection and self-examination through his “soul paintings” – the first of these is widely considered to be The Sick Child from 1886 (the version shown was made later). He painted it more than 20 times before finally exhibiting it to the public in Kristiania (now Oslo). At the opening, people gathered round the painting to gawp and laugh. Used to the smooth finish of French salon style painting, they could not believe that anyone would dare show a work so crude and unfinished in character. Inspired directly by the death of his sister, Munch also sought to invest the painting with all the painful feelings around his mother’s death and his own childhood fears of dying. An exception to the hostile reception came from another of Munch’s mentors, the naturalist painter Christian Krohg. “He really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else,” he wrote.

The Sick Child
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child, 1907, oil on canvas
The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group,
BONO, Oslo/DACS, London 2012

 

Layer upon layer of paint

Munch, in his writings, has described how he fought with the image of The Sick Child for a year: he painted, wiped out, repainted, and scraped off until it was as “heavy as lead”. Analysis by Brian Singer et al has revealed a complex pattern of pigments and extenders including “zinc white, cobalt blue, emerald green, red ochre and cadmium yellow together with chalk and possibly talc”. Cobalt Blue, which can be found in the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour range, is a clean blue that is neither warm nor cold and is regarded as useful for creating muted colour mixes.

 

Munch’s colours

Munch would go on to paint some of the most iconic images ever created, including Madonna, The Human Mountain: Towards The Light, and two oil versions of The Scream. A pastel version of The Scream sold for £74 million in 2012, making it, at the time, the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. It has become one of the most recognisable images depicting the troubled mind. Below are the colours available in the Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour range that have been found in these works.

Cobalt Blue – The Sick Child, The Human Mountain: Towards The Light
Prussian Blue – Madonna, The Scream (1893 and 1910)
Zinc White – The Sick Child, Madonna, The Scream (1893 and 1910), The Human Mountain: Towards The Light.

Legacy

Munch died peacefully in 1944. He left a large bequest to the museum of Oslo which includes 100 paintings, 18,000 prints, 4,500 watercolours and drawings, six sculptures, and 92 sketch books, along with letters, painting equipment and tubes of Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour from around 1906. The 1906 catalogue entry for Mineral Gray (now discontinued) reads: “A very admirable pigment, prepared from the inferior grades of genuine Ultramarine. It has a beautiful translucent quality, besides being a capital drier. Some makes we have met with are the veriest rubbish, and appear to be mere crude Lapis Lazuli ground to powder.” Others, including Terre Verte, now have different chemical formulations, but Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue and Viridian are still in the Artists’ Oil Colour range and are the same formulations now as they were in 1906.

Whatever the modern interpretations of Munch and his work, part of his legacy will always reside in his innovations with the centuries old tradition of oil painting.

Bibliography

Studies In Conservation 55 (2010) Pages 1-9: Investigation of Materials Used By Edvard Munch written by Brian Singer, Trond Aslaksby, Biljana Topalova-Casadiego and Eva Storevik Tveit.

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