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Munch, decadence – and Jæger

PICTURE ART / Edvard Munch described man's basic existential conditions: loneliness, fusion fantasies and an ecstasy that ends in vampirism and screams. But was Hans Jæger the source of inspiration for "Scream"? This essay looks at both love entanglements, naturalism and decadence – from Kristiania and Berlin.


130 years ago it turned 29 years old Edvard Munch invited by the art association in Berlin to show his pictures. The exhibition opened in November 1892. It was supposed to last 14 days, but was closed after a week. He was ostracized from good company and ridiculed by the newspapers' art critics. The Volks-Zeitung wrote, for example, that the art association in Berlin apparently wanted to show how a painter "can degenerate when he has no other goal than to arouse attention". The scandal was a fact, and the exhibition instantly made Munch famous throughout Germany.

Morgenbladet's correspondent lowered the saber Scream.

But Munch also made new friends in the environment around the inn Zum schwarzen Ferkel ("The black piglet"), which was located close to the Brandenburg Gate. Here he spent damp evenings and nights together with August Strindberg, the Polish author of decadence Stanisław Przybyszewski, the pianist Dagny Juel and many other visiting Nordic artists, intellectuals and writers.

Edvard Munch. Sequence portrait (Kutet).

What did Munch learn in Berlin?

A year later, Munch opened a new one utstilling in Berlin. In December 1893, he grouped six images under the heading "Liebe" ("Love"): Summer night. The voice, Kiss, Melancholy, Madonna, Vampire og Scream ("Despair"). In the press, Munch received even harsher treatment than when he exhibited the year before. Morgenbladet's correspondent lowered the saber Scream – which has now become Munch's most famous picture:

"The pure Caricature is the last Picture 'Despair'. The background is a wonderful egg-yellow, red and gray sky, and the figure, a poor Mansling with long hair and a convulsively open mouth, is impossible to make sense of. You become wise no matter how long you stare at this ridiculous Miskmask."

What did Munch learn in Berlin? Some of the motifs were created before the stay in Germany, others were new. Melancholy with the depressive hanging head in the foreground, Jappe Nielsen was the model. It was painted in both 1891 and 1892, but in the 1893 version one eye of the foreground figure is drawn as a triangle. Munch had first-hand knowledge of the harrowing triangular conflict in the bohemian milieu in Kristiania between Oda Krohg, Jappe Nielsen and Christian Krohg. Kiss, Madonna og Vampyr (which in 1893 bore the title "Love and pain") presents the difficult love directly. That Summer night. The voice depicting a young girl's erotic awakening, is suggested by the moon's reflection in the sea as a phallus.

Vampyr however, was painted in Berlin and was reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Scream was exhibited for the first time under the vignette "Liebe" in 1893 in Berlin. But what has Scream to do with love? It is common to highlight a record from Munch in January 1892 as the background for the picture:

"I stopped, leaned against the fence tired to death – / Looked out over the flaming clouds like blood and swords – / That a blue-black fjord and city – / My friends went on – I stood there trembling with anguish – / And I felt as a great, endless cry through nature.”

The love entanglements from Kristiania were repeated in Berlin.

Love is not a theme here either. But Hans Jäger already had in A day of my life (1888) written about his unhappy love, the suicide attempt and the triangular conflict between himself, Vera (Oda Krohg) and Bjørck (Christian Krohg). Åright after, Munch painted the well-known portrait of the bohemian leader. In Berlin, Munch experienced the erotic conflicts again among the Berlin bohemia. Many men were in love with the pianist Dagny Juel, with whom Munch may also have had a relationship. Munch introduced her in Zum schwarzen Ferkel at the beginning of March 1893. According to several sources, she had a relationship with Strindberg before she married the Polish decadent writer Stanisław Przybyszewski on 18 August 1893. Munch also painted Dagny Juel's portrait in Berlin.

The love entanglements from Kristiania were repeated in Berlin. Once is never once, it is said: Only when something is experienced for the second time, one makes an experience. This repetition meant that Munch got a clarification of his view on love. In addition, he was inspired by the sexual prophet Przybyszewski, the misogynist August Strindberg and the erotic German poet Richard Dehmel.

Summer night

Hans Jäger's Sick love

In addition, Christian and Oda Krohg visited Berlin in 1893. Oda now had a new lover, the writer Gunnar Heiberg. In the spring of the same year, Jæger's novel came out Sick love out in Paris. The text with the suicide attempt from 1888 was reprinted as the penultimate part of the novel. Previously, Jæger had called the main character Fischer. Now he used his own name.

At the beginning of Sick love Jæger exclaims: "alone... alone in the whole world... nobody likes me." He screams with all his soul for Oda (Vera) and describes her as a Madonna figure: "a quiet happy smile shines on her face, a wonderful mother-sensual Madonna smile, which lifts the beauty of her body high into the undiscovered..." Jæger had fantasies about merging with Vera. He wanted "that her beautiful body should suddenly open from top to bottom and take me into her, and close her over me, so that she could stay inside and dissolve and be consumed inside and pass into the juices of her body – so it finally once this agonizing consuming thirst for her could be quenched…”

Jæger's relationship with Oda Krohg means that Munch's Scream og Madonna can be understood in connection with Kiss og Vampyr. When the persons merge, this expresses a symbiotic relationship between the sexes. Jäger compares himself in Sick love with a sick child, and Oda even has to feed him. He is completely helpless without her. The other side of symbiosis and cannibalism is despair and anxiety. When the Danish writer Herman Bang reviewed Jæger's novel in the journal Samtiden, he began by describing a statue of "a vampire, a terrible dog made of stone, an upright panther with twenty breasts, where a human face bends over a cross-legged youth". Bang thought the sculpture could function as a vignette for Jægers Sick love.

"Madonna" Edvard Munch

Hunter's mute scream

All this is only evidence, and not enough to establish that Jæger was a source of inspiration for Scream. But when Vera told Jæger that she was most fond of Bjørck, he reacted in the following way:

"[N]at first I completely understand what it means—and I get a terrible urge to scream, scream with all the power of my lungs... scream my terror out into the tawny-stained, sunlit forest.

But no sound comes out of my throat, it's as if I'm going to suffocate – and I just sit there annihilated and stare in horror with stiff extinguished eyes between the light-brown sun-stained tree trunks beyond the light-brown sun-stained forest floor – and as if dying, only the silent hum of the insects is heard again in the quiet sun-heated air..”

As far as I can see, Munch research has so far not considered Jæger as a source of inspiration for Munch's painting Scream. Jæger's books are not mentioned, for example, in Poul Erik Tøjner's and Bjarne Riiser Gundersen's amusing and well-documented book Scream – the story of a picture (2013). As an old friend of Jæger, Munch had certainly read this passage already in 1888. I Sick love he got a repetition – the same year he painted Scream.

With Jæger, the scream is picturesque, it is mute and overflows into the visual: Jæger wants to scream, "scream my terror out into the reddish-brown, sunlit forest". The scream is expressed through the sun and the play of colors, just like in Munch. The connection to Jæger makes it understandable why Munch exhibited Scream under the title "Liebe".

Maybe President Putin is right that the West is decadent?

Five out of six images in the cycle "Liebe" can in this way be linked to Jæger, all but one Summer night. The voice. The painting describes the woman's erotic awakening, according to several interpreters. Jæger's project to arouse young girls sexually, both in From Kristiania-Bohêmen and in the earlier plays Olga og An intellectual seduction, can here form a background.

Jæger claimed that he was broken by society's morals. The Bohemians were the "future-born children of the past" who could only describe their own downfall. This is "decadence" as good as any, long before decadence was referred to as a literary movement in Norway. Jæger himself, who was decisively influenced by the French writer Émile Zola, described himself as a naturalist.

In the world's first book on Munch from 1894, Przybyszewski called his friend Munch a "psychic naturalist". Przybyszewski transferred naturalism to the life of the soul. The pessimism and mood of doom from the socially emphasized naturalism was continued in decadence. Munch now described man's basic existential conditions: loneliness, fusion fantasies and an ecstasy that ends in vampirism and screams. Munch's pictures or Jæger's novel Sick love were no less decadent than Garborg's novel of decadence Tired Men, which came two years before.


The topicality of decadence

MODERN TIMES's editor has asked me to explain what is still relevant about this period of Munch's development. It is a difficult question. What is actually relevant? Corona, lockdown, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis and global warming. And also inflation: rising food and electricity prices.

Munch cannot help us with this, although many may feel like screaming when the problems loom large. Should we demand solutions from art? If an artist wants to convince people politically, why not instead write a newspaper article or non-fiction book? When art becomes propaganda, it destroys itself.

What is relevant? In order to stimulate the ideological-historical instincts, one must get under the skin of the zeitgeist, what lies behind the news image. Maybe President Putin is right that the West is decadent? It may seem absurd: the head of a thoroughly corrupt mafia state accuses the enemy of decay! But does he still have a point?

"Decadent" is now mostly used for someone who is morally corrupt. But in Munch's time, "Decadence" was common to describe any form of decline or decline, for example in the economy and population. Only later did the word become the designation for a direction within literature and art.

We now feel the decadence on our bodies, as the word was used around 1890: Inflation, weakened purchasing power and falling house prices are some of the symptoms. But how do art and culture stand in relation to economic decline? Perhaps the decline can lead to growth of a different kind?


The oil fund's enormous increase after the turn of the millennium has not led to a corresponding cultural flourishing. Recently, I heard a climate activist exclaim in schadenfreude: "Now people can no longer afford their damned anti-climate consumption! Everyone talks about growth, but what we need is shrinking!”

Are we about to get a new social pornographic realism about people who starve and freeze in winter? "The Girl with the Brimstones" revisited? Hans Jæger's partner Christian Krohg painted such pictures in the 1880s, for example "The Struggle for Life": The poor fight over food when bread is distributed. Naturalism is still relevant.

Wasn't it naturalism that Munch left when he went to Berlin in the autumn of 1892?

But wasn't it naturalism that Munch left when he went to Berlin in the autumn of 1892? Naturalism described social misery and how heredity and environment influenced people in a deterministic way. The artists and writers fled from such descriptions of society around 1890. Hamsun wanted unconscious soul life and Vilhelm Krag exotic women who danced the fandango.

Decadence and psychic naturalism

In 1881, the French writer Paul Bourget formulated the "theory of decadence" in a canonized essay on Baudelaire. There he drew a direct line of connection between the isolation of the individual from society and the isolation of details in the work, of "the word from the line, the line from the page and the page from the book", as he expressed it in a famous formulation. Decadence meant that both the work and society fell apart. This sociology of art is reductionist. "Recession times" do not have to mean decline in all areas.

Decadence meant that both the work and society fell apart.

Those who applauded Munch's break with naturalism and impressionism had difficulty explaining that Przybyszewski called Munch a "psychic naturalist". In his little book on Gustav Vigeland, Przybyszewski himself described naturalism as "the art of the thoughtless and soulless mob" which only addressed the brain. He wanted to reproduce "the naked soul" in contrast to the external nature and the mind. But the soul was also nature! The exploration of the unconscious soul was still characterized by the determinism of naturalism and its heritage and environmental thinking.

The art historian Hans Dedekam linked Munch's to the style ideal of decadence. He emphasized Bourget's definition of decadence "as dissolution, as the detachment of the individual from the social organism and the individual part from the whole". "You will find it in Munch's art, where line and color take on an independent meaning, which threatens to burst the barriers of artwork and painting."

Disaster scenarios

The pandemic has led to both more loneliness og increasing social dependence. Noreena Hertz was out with the book early after the corona outbreak The Lonely Century (2020). Gudmund Hernes, for his part, quickly established that the pandemic disproved Thatcher's motto that "there is no such thing as society". Subjective and objective naturalism can be two sides of the same coin.

The leading German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz has said that today's society downplays expectations of growth and prosperity. Security, risk assessments and crisis management characterize the policy. The utopias have been abandoned. "Resilience" has become the new buzzword of the zeitgeist: Now we are preparing for disaster scenarios. Resilience, understood as a social ideal, is new in this country. Large Norwegian encyclopedia defines the word as "psychological resilience, the factors related to maintaining mental strength and health despite stress and strain".

Hans Jæger balanced in Sick love constantly on the edge of the cliff, he was emotionally unstable and very little resilient. The figure in Munch's painting "Scream" would not pass a resilience test either. The conclusion must be: Munch's and Jæger's decadence is precisely what we are for need right now!

But art is not reality. When we threaten to drown in doomsday fantasies, these bohemians can still help us get our heads above water.

Because they name the devil. It is the first step to finding the meaning of life.


Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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