The spiritual kinship of Munch and Nietzsche.
“But grant me from time to time—if there are divine goddesses in the realm beyond good and evil—grant me the sight, but one glance of something perfect, wholly achieved, happy, mighty, triumphant, something still capable of arousing fear! Of a man who justifies man, of a complementary and redeeming lucky hit on the part of man for the sake of which one may still believe in man!” Friedrich Nietzsche
“Suggest, never describe” proclaimed the Symbolists, a motley group of poets, essayists, artists, and philosophers active during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944) was one of this number along with writers Maurice Maeterlinck, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charles Baudelaire and artists Paul Gauguin, James Ensor, Gustav Klimt, and Edouard Vuillard, among others. Munch’s c.1906 portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, which appears in our fall issue, offers a unique interpretation of the Symbolist aesthetic as well as Nietzsche’s ideas about art and physiology and the eternal return.
Munch grew up in a modest and cultured household—his uncle was the historian P.A. Munch—but his early life was marred by illness and death. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was a young boy, and Munch and his four siblings were raised by their father, a man slowly descending into mental illness. At age 14, Munch lost a beloved sister to tuberculosis, an event that led to his first important painting, the haunting Sick Child (1885–86). While studying art in France, Munch lost his father and brother and another sister became mentally ill. The artist himself lost part of a finger from a gunshot wound and suffered from eye ailments; he also began drinking heavily. “Illness, insanity, and death,” Munch wrote, “were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.”
In France, Munch discovered the post-Impressionists, the Nabis, and the Symbolist poets and absorbed their interest in emotions and sensuality along with their emphasis on art’s artifice as a means of conveying one all-encompassing idea. His own highly original style began to appear in the 1890s, during which the artist focused on daringly frank examinations of sexuality and emotional states of mind. His art—paintings and prints—reflected these themes through a sensual application of color and a penchant, in the graphic works especially, for heavy, tortuous lines. Just as Munch was reaching his first artistic maturity, he encountered the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.
That Munch never met Nietzsche is one of the great missed encounters of the modern age. The artist first learned of Nietzsche in a series of lectures in Copenhagen and then through the Swedish poet and critic Ola Hansson who popularized German philosophy—by Nietzsche, Strindberg, Schelling, Haeckel, and others—through a series of essays. Munch began to snap up as many books by Nietzsche as he could find and soon these volumes outnumbered those of his other favorite Dostoyevsky. It was while he was in Weimar, attending incongruously as a threadbare (and perpetually drunk) courtier at the stodgy Weimar court, that Munch received an invitation to visit Nietzsche’s house where his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, lived. Around the same time, Munch received the commission for Nietzsche’s portrait from another enthusiast, Swedish banker Ernest Thiel, who wanted an “ideas portrait” of the great man. Thiel, a renowned art collector, had the means to produce translations of much of Nietzsche’s writings, including luxury editions of works such as Ecce Homo and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and to fund the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar.
At the time of the commission, Munch had a reputation as a controversial bohemian specializing in works of probing, if rather confrontational, psychological acuity. He frequently spoke of the creative process in physiological terms, describing painting as “a disease and an intoxication, a disease I don’t want to get rid of, an intoxicant I crave.” His heated explorations of sexuality and woman—as lover, Madonna, and vampire—circled around themes of beauty, surrender, desire, and the threat of creativity being destroyed by love. These controversial erotic images alternated with figures depicted in urban isolation or claustrophobic settings connoting alienation in an industrializing world fixated on materialism—his famous painting The Scream (four versions painted 1893–1910) shows just this kind of Schopenhauerian dread.
In Nietzsche, Munch discovered a shared spiritual kinship—both suffered from loneliness, a lack of recognition, and a fear of madness. Nietzsche’s own work on art and physiology coincided perfectly with Munch’s temperament and artistic interests; both regarded patho-physiology as a revelatory state, one to be feared as much as sought after. Art and physiology was much on the minds of nineteenth-century French and German thinkers, who often looked to rationalize man’s place in the world through the burgeoning field of what we today would call “metrics.” In 1847, Carl Ludwig introduced the kymograph, or “wave writer,” to track spatial position over time. Nietzsche himself personally owned a dynamometer, an instrument that purported to measure beauty and ugliness. In addition, developing photographic technology was used document the internal organs as well as facial expressions and the movement of the lips during phonation. With these graphical representations of bodily circumstances, thinkers like Nietzsche and Munch believed that elusive concepts like being, beauty, and aesthetics could be captured and made manifest, a sort of grand interdisciplinary ontological experiment. The Symbolists were especially fruitful in finding ways to deploy these trends so that the experience of beauty and joy would give people the ability to, as art scholar Shelley Wood Cordulack describes, “live oneself in other things and people, to multiply oneself…in the context of a heightened, Dionysian aesthetic state [where] beauty was exhilarating, while ugliness was debilitating.” Munch would take these graphical representations even further in his art, relying on the sensuous line to replicate the transient and the immanent—from sounds waves and natural forces to vibrating human emotional energy.
Munch also found Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return sympathetic to his aims as an artist. “From my rotting body,” Munch moodily intoned, “flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.” This notion of spiritualized expression arising from a material object also followed Schelling: “where the particular [the object] is so in accord with its idea that this idea itself, as the infinite, enters into the finite and is intuited in concreto.” The constant dialectic taking place between material artistic genius and an intuitive metaphysics echoes Nietzsche in Also Sprach Zarathustra—“that long weird lane, must we not eternally return?”—and in The Convalescent—“Everthing goeth, everything returneth, eternally rolleth the wheel of existence.” Interestingly, Nietzsche's eternal return makes no allowance for the soul or immortality, something that Munch, son of a religious military doctor, could never quite reject: “One must believe in immortality.”
Munch’s portrait of Nietzsche is a remarkable amalgam of naturalism and Symbolism. In it, we apprehend a man weighed down by ideas, a thinker resigned to thwarted ambition and perhaps a belated realization that Dionysian exaltation was not as life affirming as it had appeared in younger days. Munch has captured the physical essence of the man, even down to his signature walrus mustache and bushy eyebrows. Nietzsche is pictured, hands decorously crossed, standing on a balcony or bridge against mountains and a vivid sky; in other version of this painting, there are fewer colors and a faraway city or building lies at the left; it is unclear if these buildings represent the asylum where Munch’s sister was committed, the city of Oslo which Munch had come to hate, or a city with relevance for Nietzsche. (Looking closely at the version above, the contours of the buildings are visible but have been obscured by vigorous applications of pastel crayon.)
Munch’s naturalistic treatment of his subject includes a great deal of ambiguity: Has the philosopher stopped to ponder the futility of human endeavor or is he musing on the beauty of the natural setting? Why has Munch obscured the city at the left and devoted so much energy to surface texture yet left the image so incomplete? Certainly, we could put this down as a Dionysian gesture, one that reflects Munch’s state of mind even as it pays homage to Nietzsche. But it might also be viewed as an example of the eternal cycle to which Munch returned repeatedly over the course of his career. To achieve an “ideas portrait,” a subject as rich as Nietzsche could not possibly be exhausted in one definitive attempt. Rather, the portraits of Nietzsche offered Munch several opportunities to examine his own protean psychological state as well as to delve into Wie man wird, was man ist or “how one becomes what one is.”