- Look at Edvard Munch’s Ashes and make notes as to how Freud’s ideas help you to understand this image
Edvard Munch, Ashes, 1894 (mid career, once personal style had been established)
Can be seen at Oslo’s National Museum – http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/collections_and_research/our_collections/edvard_munch_in_the_national_museum/Ashes,+1894.b7C_wljU4d.ips
Norwegian symbolic painter, most famous for The Scream
Born 1863 died 1944 (Freud born 1856 died 1939)
Brief synopsis of Munch’s formative years
Born to an artistic mother and pious religious doctor who never had much very money. The father, Christian, was extremely religious, and in Munch’s mind pathological with it. Although he had a positive relationship with his children, Munch felt his ‘extreme pietism’(Wiki) marred his childhood. His mother died when he was 5 and his father bought him up, alongside his aunt. He dropped out of college after a year to pursue art and was eventually invited to Paris to study with painter Leon Bonnat. His bohemian friend Hans Jæger encouraged him to paint his inner world and Munch began to move away from any relationship with naturalism or post-impressionism. After his father died in 1889 Munch felt suicidal and suggested that he ‘lived with the dead’ (Wiki). By then he had also reached a style which was symbolic and filled with strong colours.
He was at first respectful towards women but “was unsettled by the sexual revolution going on at the time and by the independent women around him.” (This sounds like something that could be said accurately today in relation to some men and the trend showing violent crime against women rising – see Guardian article here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/05/violent-crimes-against-women-in-england-and-wales-reach-record-high) Munch became cynical towards women, which he expressed in his behavior, art, and writings, as seen in The City of Free Love. (Prideaux, 2005;72) (Wiki)
Notes on image prior to reading about Munch’s life
Following are notes relating to what I saw prior to reading about Munch’s early years and the painting – so subjective in the extreme no doubt. (Obviously context deepens an understanding of a painting but it can also prevent one from looking carefully. I will write notes afterwards detailing subsequent context and how that changed or impacted on my initial reading)
The style is dreamlike and suggestive of an inner world. I think it is coded so as to suggest a semi-conscious, non-naturalistic representation, due especially to the swirly lines in the brush stroke typical of Munch’s developing trademark, along with the powerful and dramatic gestures (Think gest).
- It has a highly symbolic – dreamlike quality;
- the forest, the darkness of it; the hair, colour – red, trailing from the woman to the man, bonded by history, instrumental in creating his form – outlining his face and hand;
- the frame, a branch that bends round the left and bottom of the picture, hemming them in together;
- white and red on woman, black on man – different shades of death, life;
- woman – open face and eyes directed at the viewer, man – hidden, turned away from viewer. The woman’s face on the other hand is more ambiguous. although her body language isn;t. It is far more powerful in this image than the male figure although there is anguish too with her hands clutching her head in that way, but there isn’t shame and the extreme openness of her positioning suggests an honesty the male cannot cope with.
- Her dress looks ripped open and the red underclothes trail to a point which might be read in several ways – always hard not to see blood.
- The man’s position and gesture suggests an immense sense of deep and overwhelming shame, the sort that corrupts and destroys relating, makes life overwhelmingly difficult, suggestive of an existence, or at any rate this moment that has been recorded, filled with deep anguish.
- The positions are incredibly powerful and I was reminded of Brecht again. (When his work is actually done in a style other than the head-led, virtually dead body acting style we’re used to in mainstream theatre in this country, which is so heavily influenced by TV and film acting)
Further notes after some research
Once I’d read more about Munch it became clearer how I might link Freud’s paper to the picture. The death of Munch’s mother when he was very young must have had a profound impact on him and everyone in his family – an absence of a maternal figure is seen as difficult across psychological theories (be she dead or absent in some other way). The loss of the mother at just that young age would have made it very difficult, in Freudian terms, to resolve the Oedipal stage fully and move on to the next phase of development. That, if one were to follow Freud’s thinking, will have threatened the developing libido and had an impact on the narcissistic element within Munch (although, I still struggle to get to grips with the passage regarding this in the document). He may have been trapped in this stage where his erotic love for his mother could never be addressed, and so he might have spent his life replaying scenarios that resembled the pattern of his early life, in order to attempt to get beyond it. Frustration and failure may then have compounded the shame, resulting in further self-loathing and a never-ending pattern or repeating. A classical reading might suggest that until he was able to move beyond the Oedipal stage successfully he is destined to failed relationships, and ones in which he acts out his frustrations, angers and hurts, projecting them on to the woman in question who somehow symbolises the mother he was never able to stop loving in a way that his family and society couldn’t tolerate.
All of the above will have been even doubly so due to the pious religious fanaticism of Munch’s father who no matter how good his intentions were will have helped to secure a deep and abiding sense of shame in his young son. Thankfully for Munch the father is said to have been loving towards his son, at the same time as being morally harsh and condemnatory. Had he merely been cruel, without any love to temper the intense moralising one can easily imagine, according to accounts, then I wonder how Munch will have coped at all; in that case forcing the shame so far beneath the surface that it could presumably have caused even greater problems for him in life. Munch’s choice of work was also to become a point of difficulty in the relationship between father and son, and so Munch could presumably never please his father, or have his acceptance, so was doomed to forever being a disappointment his father, or thinking so.
What is so interesting in Munch’s painting is that there is a conscious acknowledgement of his shame.
(However, I do also fear that all of the above is also likely a pseudo analytical reading based on contemporary layman’s analysis that exists in the general ether.)
I see that in my earlier notes I did not fully comprehend Freud’s statement around repression and destruction of the complex.
In his mind, the ideal scenario is that the Oedipal complex must become fully resolved and when it isn’t, there remains a pathological element existing forever in the id. I wonder if something about this repression can be read in the painting – certainly shame as discussed before, and just to be sure, I don’t mean a mild dose of embarrassment but rather the coruscating life-shaping deeply embedded sort of shame that has to be repressed to a greater or lesser extent, in order to cope in any form at all, leading to profoundly disordered lives/personalities. That possibility of that sort of shame and the results of it, is for me what the painting is mostly exploring.
After reading about the painting online I see that historians suggest this shows the moments after a violent sexual encounter. From the National Museum in Oslo:
“Against a dark background of slender tree trunks, a woman in pale clothing stands facing us. Her wide eyes, loose hair and open bodice tell us of what has happened. With her hands high on her head, her posture is expressive of despair, but also of power and victory. In the lower left quarter of the picture sits a man with his back turned to the woman. He is withdrawn and holds his hands dejectedly to his head. The only contact between the two after what has just happened in the sombre woods is through her long, red hair.
“I felt our love lying on the earth like a heap of ash,” Munch wrote on a lithographic version of the motif. This explains both the picture’s title and the stylised tree trunk in front of the man. Also in its use of colour and form, this picture is full of contrasts and tension: open and closed shapes, straight and curved lines, dark and light colours.
This painting is possibly one of Munch’s most pessimistic on the subject of male − female relationships. It depicts the man as weak and the loser, while the woman is strong and victorious. In this work Munch expresses both personal experience and typical aspects of the complex contemporary view of woman: “The woman who is at one and the same time a saint – a whore – and unhappily devoted.”
The final line in this paragraph is evocative of the term ‘mother-whore’ complex and that is difficult not to equate with an internal struggle in terms of Oedipal urges, i.e. finding a way to overcome (or not finding a way but rather allowing it to shade one’s life) a compromised id, that must carry the unresolved Oedipal complex which Freud tells us should ideally be dissolved. Framed within that, it is difficult to see how a man hindered by such a complex could ever have a satisfying and authentic relationship with any woman and, although about one particular moment, Munch’s painting seems to represent the universal and ongoing reality of those sorts of dynamics.
Finally, I am just intrigued and fascinated by a little bit of synchronicity I noticed. Compare the painting with the image in the Guardian article I referred to regarding violence towards women today. It’s really quite extraordinary. The photograph is almost an exact mirror opposite of the painting. In the photograph we are shown the woman’s shame which is bought on by the violence inflicted on her. She is hidden like the Munch male and in the opposite corner of the frame. In the painting it is the male – showing us the same gesture, but also brought about by violence towards the woman, that hides in the corner. There is something so telling about this set of similarities. I think Munch can be applauded for showing some awareness of his own shame, something deeply traumatised people are often not able to confront so openly. In the photograph it is the woman who must carry the shame and represent it for allowing herself to be victimised by the shadowy figure, even in a photograph illustrating how that paradigm must be challenged.
Freud’s theory is I suppose a bit too neat and tidy (it’s never simplistic) – in his eyes the complex must be fully dissolved to move on to the next phase in order to be a functioning, healthy human being. I would think that humans cannot be ideal models from an analysis text-book and that mostly we carry the things that shape us, that we find ways with lesser and greater degrees of success to live with the animalistic urges that form who we are, and that they are in constant states of opposing tensions with civilised expectations that become internalised as we grow up.
http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Freud_Dissolution.pdf (accessed 7 September 2016)
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9320749/Edvard-Munch-Images-from-the-depths-of-the-soul.html (accessed 6 September 2016)
Edvard Munch, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edvard_Munch#CITEREFPrideaux2005 (accessed 6 September)
Oslo National Museum http://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/collections_and_research/our_collections/edvard_munch_in_the_national_museum/Ashes,+1894.b7C_wljU4d.ips (accessed 7 September 2016)
Image from The Guardian Article https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/sep/05/violent-crimes-against-women-in-england-and-wales-reach-record-high#img-1 (accessed 7 September 2016)