Self-Portraits

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Self-Portraits

“My art is a self-confession – through it, I seek to clarify my relationship with the world.” Written in 1932, this recognition resonates in Munch’s many self-portraits. In this genre he is often compared to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, known for exposing their loneliness, vulnerability and angst. “Ruthlessly honest”, one may think. However, in a self-portrait the artist will consciously or unconsciously edit their personality, laying bare certain traits while concealing others. In his drawings, Munch perhaps lower his guard more than in paintings and prints, since drawings to a lesser degree were intended for the public.

Self-scrutiny – yes, but there are also drawings where he depicts himself as self-conscious, posing, classically handsome. Something of this can be seen in his almost haughty attitude in Self-Portrait (MM.T.00580). However, if one looks closer, there is almost always more to find than meets the eye.

In addition to pure self-portraits he may also be found as a minor character in larger compositions. In Kristiania Bohemians II (MM.T.02383), he is sitting to the extreme right, as one man among others, who all have, has had or wish they could have an affair with the bohemian queen at the end of the table.

Munch’s many humorous “self-caricatures” show that he did not always take himself very seriously. Trying to control his excessive use of alcohol is like balancing on a tight rope across the Niagara falls with a glass of wine in his hands (PN.01200). And at the clinic in Copenhagen, he is convinced – or perhaps not? – that his batteries are flat and need to be recharged with “female negative and male positive energy” (MM.T.01976). Filling out the income tax form is no joke, even if he jokes about it (MM.T.02559).

One of Munch’s last self-portraits is Self-Portrait. Quarter past two in the Morning (MM.T.02433), where he emerges as his own ghost, his head shaped like a skull. And behind, Death is waiting in the form of an almost personified shadow. All his combined angst, for life, for the war raging outside, for death, seems condensed in this expressive water-colour, like an echo of his own Scream, 50 years earlier.

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