I confess that when my husband received this massive graphic novel as a Christmas present, I raised an eyebrow and wondered where it would fit on our crowded shelves. But I was all about giving it a chance, as Edvard Munch’s paintings are really intriguing and I am already reading the biography of another painter, Gauguin, trying to understand how these people managed to break away from the conventions of their times to try radically new painting styles.
I was eager to discover, but I can’t say the graphic style of Steffen Kverneland appealed to me at once. You can see it: very angular, and close to caricature. Even now I don’t really like it, but after finishing the book I find it fitting to Munch’s life, even though Edvard Munch’s paintings are anything but angular.
But Munch’s bohemia life had a grotesque, cartoony aspect, especially as he and Strindberg spent nights after nights drinking and partying. Munch’s manifesto was that he never wanted to painted what he saw, but what he had seen (as in, what he remembers feeling at that time, I guess).
The story of this massive book is not completely linear and cut at times by the own rendition of Kverneland himself and his mate Lars Fiske (via photos and cartoons) researching, discussing and visiting landscapes of famous paintings and other places important to Munch, trying to see what he’d seen, preferably with a little help from a strong liquor. These funny interruptions made the atmosphere lighter, less dark and deep. It was rather welcome, as Munch is not really a fun, extrovert type.
Nevertheless, I came out with a more complex, I dare even say muddled, image of Munch than the simplistic one I had before. My reference was a movie I’d watched a few years ago on DVD, a 1974 movie by Peter Watkins which centered on his childhood and coming-of-age years. It felt as if Munch was mysterious, morbid, haunted by vision and hallucinations, surrounded by death and smothered by the moral taboos of his time. Yet now I have a more down-to-earth vision of his entire life (after all, he had a long life: 1863-1944), he experimented with different painting styles and he decidedly knew how to promote and sell his art. His family had indeed known some deaths, but no more than the normal of these times. It was actually the fashion of the turn-of-the-century (and Munch following the trend) to insist so much on morbidity, darkness and decadence.
There’s a fascinating article in English by Kverneland on Eurozine, explaining his whole project.