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The Munch Connection

by:  Sarah Schnebly at 01/06/2017

The Scream

The Huntington Theatre Company’s current production of A Doll House draws much of its visual inspiration from the paintings of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (most famous of his piece known as The Scream). But what does this pioneer of Expressionism share with playwright Henrik Ibsen, the father of the Realism? After all, Ibsen was thirty-five years Munch’s senior, and spent most of his time in Italy and Germany during the years that Munch was growing up in his native Norway. It must have been more than their shared nationality, however, for critics and scholars alike to compare the works of these two artists decades after their deaths.

While living in Paris during the late 1890s, Munch created the programHenrik Ibsen at the Grand Cafe artwork for two of Ibsen’s plays and later, shortly after the playwright’s death, Munch designed the set for Max Reinhardt’s production of Ghosts.  Even before this explicit link to Ibsen’s work, the Norwegian playwright’s influence can be seen in many of Munch’s paintings. Indeed, Munch was something of an Ibsen enthusiast. His first illustration of an Ibsen play, for The Pretenders, he drew when he was just a teenager.  The idea that these artists share a deep thematic link may have even begun with Munch’s claim that Ibsen’s last play When We Dead Awaken was inspired by Munch’s Women in Three Stages, a part of his Frieze of Life series. Whether or not this was true, it is clear that the painter saw himself reflected in Ibsen’s stories.

Munch_Det_Syke_Barn

Many of his biographers trace the tension and neuroses apparent in Munch’s art to the illnesses — both mental and physical — that surrounded him throughout his childhood. His grandfather suffered from insanity before dying, which Munch believed was a symptom of syphilis. When Munch later struggled with mental illness himself, he could lean into the idea that he was a victim of a hereditary disease. Osvald of Ibsen’s Ghosts and Dr. Rank of A Doll’s House similarly suffer from the unspeakable disease contracted by their fathers. Munch’s strict and, according to Munch, “obsessively religious” father, also shares a resemblance with the morally upright and unbending Torvald in A Doll’s House. 

Jealousy

Despite the echoes of Ibsen characters in Munch’s life, the argument still stands that the two Norwegian men subscribed to two very different artistic movements. Munch’s decided turn from Realism, however, separates his work only superficially from Ibsen. In the world of A Doll’s House, anxiety and melancholy lie just below the surface of the social niceties and the rituals of family life. In the Expressionists paintings of Munch, these feelings ooze from every inch of the frame. As Johan Fredrik Michelet described it, “Even a house can gaze at us with a friendly or an evil expression in its façade.” Such is the case with the Munch inspired set of A Doll’s House, in which the feelings, suppressed by societal conventions, come closer and closer to the surface until they can no longer be contained.

    Separation

Photo Credits:

  1. The Scream, Edvard Munch, oil painting
  2. Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café, Edvard Munch, lithograph
  3. The Sick Child, Edvard Munch, oil painting
  4. Jealousy, Edvard Munch, oil painting
  5. Separation, Edvard Munch, oil painting

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