Exploring artist Edvard Munch’s iconic works developed during the Spanish flu

As STIR takes a look at the works of artists from modern history who thrived during the past pandemics, part 1 of 3 delves into the Norwegian artist's life during the 1918 flu.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Jul 17, 2020

“He suffered, and depicted the condition of modern man in a time which was not yet conscious of its own predicament,” wrote JP Hodin in the introduction of his texts, which examined the life, works and career of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Famously known for creating history’s one of the most remembered paintings The Scream, Munch was an artist who struggled with illness all his life and through the loss of his close family experienced the harsh coldness of death first-hand. His familiarity with the fragility of life and the anxieties which come along with it are overtly recognisable in his prints and paintings, which consistently grapple with the themes of spirituality, morality, mortality, fear and love.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic looms larger and deadlier than ever, positivity has become a difficult ingredient to come by these days. In this series, STIR takes a journey down the lanes of art world’s history to re-look at iconic artists who experienced pandemics and outbreaks first-hand. While some thrived and survived, others didn’t make it to witness the world which grew beyond the epidemic. In these stories, we remember once more, the relevance of the creative practitioners who went on creating through difficult times not unlike the one we are living through today.

STIR spoke to Munchmuseet, the museum dedicated to Edvard Munch’s practice in Oslo, Norway, to find out more about Munch’s activities during a time similar to what we are facing today.

‘Self-portrait with the Spanish Flu’ owned by Nasjonalmuseet | Munchmuseet | Edvard Munch| STIRworld
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu owned by Nasjonalmuseet Image Credit: Courtesy of Munchmuseet

The early 1900s observed the outbreak of the 1918 Influenza, also known as the Spanish flu, which took place almost exactly a hundred years ago from today. The most recent global pandemic before this year, the Spanish flu affected about five hundred million people when it spread worldwide from 1918-1919, close to one-third of the global population, and ultimately took the lives of over 20 million people. This article looks at the artworks created by Edvard Munch during this period.

Although Munch created a painting titled Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu and Self-Portrait After The Spanish Flu, experts on Munch’s oeuvre at Munchmuseet in Norway say, “We do not know for sure if he actually had the Spanish flu, or if he might have had some other kind of flu or bronchitis. His biographer Atle Næss writes that Munch was sick around this time, but it is unsure exactly what kind of sickness… The American art historian Patricia Berman presented a paper at a seminar at Tate Modern in 2012, where she questions if Munch actually caught the Spanish flu. She argues that his major self-portrait titled Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu from 1919 can also be seen as an expression of identification with the sickness and the ravages it brought on society and people from Munch's side”.

A self-portrait lithograph created by Munch in 1919 | Munchmuseet | Edvard Munch| STIRworld
A self-portrait lithograph created by Munch in 1919 Image Credit: Courtesy of Munchmuseet

As a young child, Edvard Munch lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was five-years-old. During his early teenage years, he lost his older sister to the same disease. Later on, during his early 30s, he lost his older brother to pneumonia. Munch was born a rather frail child and throughout his life struggled with various illnesses, which are visibly reflected in the products of his artistic career. In his early childhood days, he suffered from chronic asthmatic bronchitis and also several serious bouts of fever. This fragility in his health is something Munch carried with him for his whole life. It is no surprise then, that Munch’s repertoire so keenly fixates on the themes of love, pain, anxiety, jealousy and death. It is the way Munch highlights these themes in his work in a way that's deeply captivating and painfully relatable in a timeless way.

‘Self-Portrait after Spanish Flu’ by Munch (1919) on display at Munchmuseet | Munchmuseet | Edvard Munch| STIRworld
Self-Portrait After Spanish Flu by Munch (1919) on display at Munchmuseet Image Credit: Courtesy of Munchmuseet

Born on December 12, 1863, Munch is remembered to this day as one of Modernism’s most significant contributors. He was part of the Symbolist movement in the 1890s, and a pioneer of expressionist art from the beginning of the 1900s onward. Edvard Munch still holds his place in museums all over the world, like Museum of Modern Art USA, Rijskmuseum The Netherlands, The British Museum (UK) and many others, apart from Munchmuseet (Norway), which is wholly dedicated to the artist. The collection at Munchmuseet comprises 1,150 paintings, close to 18,000 prints depicting more than 700 different motifs, 7,700 drawings and watercolours as well as 13 sculptures, reflective of the artist’s exploration of a variety of media.

‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, perhaps his most iconic painting | Munchmuseet | Edvard Munch| STIRworld
The Scream by Edvard Munch, perhaps his most iconic painting Image Credit: Courtesy of Google Art Project
Read more from the series here:

Celebrating the life of pop artist Keith Haring who promoted AIDS awareness

Remembering Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s revolutionary erotic art style

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