Monday, May 9, 2011

Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait with Cigarette

"Sickness and insanity were the black angels that guarded my cradle."
                                                                    - Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1895
(National Gallery, Oslo, Norway)
Edvard Munch, a Norwegian Symbolist, was obsessed with sickness and death.  He lost his mother when he was five and then his favorite sister and his brother, all to tuberculosis. But this was not exceptional since health problems were rampant at this time and people thought it was due to living in cities where the air was not clean.  Munch, as an adult, had acute anxiety and depression and even had to be institutionalized.

After studying art in Oslo and not getting the response he wanted to his first show, he went to Paris to learn to draw on a fellowship from the government.   He had to return home after a very brief stay because his father died. Although he traveled, he lived in Germany for the rest of his life.  Munch had some very tumultuous relationships, never got married or had any children.

Munch worked on several self-portraits to explore his mood and sense of self.  In Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, he portrayed himself almost being subsumed by a purple cloud of smoke, giving the impression that he had been smoking for sometime.  The smoke also heightens the expressive effect of his hand and face. He has painted yellow highlights on his face and hand as well as red veins popping on his hand giving him an overall sickly appearance.  Because he put so many different things in his paints, how he treated the surface of the canvas and the drippings at the bottom, this painting almost has the appearance of a water color. He stares out, his eyes wide and intense, with his hand blocking the progress of the viewer into the picture, protecting himself.  He almost looks startled, questioning, maybe a little surprised at himself or someone who is watching him.  This is a very radical image because smoking a cigarette was not the typical way artists depicted themselves.

Munch is actually proclaiming his association with the commonly accepted concepts of Decadence and Bohemianism  in the 1890's in Self-Portrait with Cigarette. Decadence was a Parisian literary movement from the 1870's that suggested the exploration of the self in art as opposed to the naturalistic narrative that dealt with social issues- a rhetoric of moral deformity as a source of artistic redemption.  Bohemianism was the lifestyle of the marginal, non-traditional, like-minded artists and writers who promoted a dissent from the prevailing middle-class modes of behavior, and the cafe which was served as the social setting for this.1  

When he showed this painting along with a group of others, critics were so appalled that they said this was the work of a sick mind that could potentially corrupt young minds.  Scharffenberg, a 26 year old medical student, tried to scientifically prove a direct link between Munch's art and the illnesses in his family. Munch was not bothered by this, in fact he considered sickness a positive for creativity because it suggested that the aesthetic imagination could exceed the boundaries set by a rational mind and provided the flexibility for the artist's creative abilities to come thorough.  He insisted that illness and anxiety were central to his work. In 19th century there was a well established connection between artistic creativity and illness.

There was also a social class related issue to smoking, because cigarettes communicated that its user was someone outside of middle class boundaries and or someone with pretensions to working class status.  During his early adulthood, one of the ideals of Munch and his circle of friends from 'Kristiania (present day Oslo) Boheme' was the destruction of such boundaries; cigarettes and alcohol were the signs of their bohemian cafe persona.2

Norwegian critic Andreas Aubert identified Munch, as "one of the children of a refined, over civilized age," affected with the condition of neurasthenia, a nervous disorder.  Munch embraced this idea because this condition made the person have more sensitivity to the world around him so he could portray the world differently.3

With the iconography of this image, Munch is referencing marginality, dissolution, and taking his place with the degenerate who wanted to demolish middle-class values.  In this self-portrait Munch gives us a glimpse into the his inner feelings and symbols instead of what he observed in the mirror. He is also using color, line and composition in an expressive way to evoke emotions and moods. All these elements makes this painting a great work to study in order to understand one of the different artistic styles of Symbolism.

1-3 Patricia G.Berman, "Edvard Munch's Self-Portrait with Cigarette:  Smoking and the Bohemian Persona" Art Bulletin, Vol. 75, No. 4,(Dec 1993), 630-636


  1. Awesome! Such a great blog. Thanks for sharing this with us. Looking forward for another informative and interesting topics.

  2. Good writing. I might suggest a correction for you : Munch did not live for the rest of his life in Germany. He was there from 1908 to 1909 for treatment. He then came back to Norway, and lived for the rest of his life alone, surrounded by his paintings ( his family ).


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