Sunday, January 5, 2014

Paint by Emotion: Edvard Munch's Struggle With Bipolar Disorder

He was a man surrounded by death, and grief - the blackest sort of emotions and deepest kinds of sadness. When he died in the winter of 1944, he left over 20,000 pieces of his work to the city of Oslo, the place where he was born. Best known for his hauntingly beautiful painting, "The Scream", Edvard Munch was a man who likely had many things to scream about in his own life, not the least of which was his suspected bipolar disorder.

Once called "manic depression" (a term that is now seen as outdated), this brutal psychological condition manifests itself primarily through intense mood changes, severe depression, and swings in energy levels. These changes can disappear as quickly as they come, giving rise to the term "bipolar", literally opposite poles on the emotional spectrum. An exact cause for why bipolarism occurs is thus far unknown, and even less was understood about it during Munch's life. A person suffering from this condition often goes through cycles or periods where they experience abnormally large swings and changes in their moods, energy levels and depression. Some in the medical field feel that traumatic events and excess stress, especially during a patient's youth can greatly increase the risk of developing bipolar disorder, either at the time of the trauma or in the years following it.

In the first few years of his life after he was born in 1863, Munch watched as both his parents, a sister and a brother all died. As the years went on other siblings and close relatives would pass away, and another sister was diagnosed as being mentally ill. With so much death and sickness circulating through his young mind, it is almost too easy to see how and why this Norwegian artist would go on to create pieces of art that dealt less with somewhat cheery impressionism of the time, and more with capturing the essence of emotions and moods. Fraught by anguish and perhaps a sense of loneliness, Edvard decided to enrol in art school in 1881. With his life in tow Munch began going between Paris and Norway (and later Germany), studying the great artists and art movements of the era.

While not entirely macabre for the most part, in general Munch's work was far from the flower gardens and ballet dancers that top impressionist artists were painting by the cartful at the time. Instead, Munch wanted to convey more than just a scene; he wanted his paintings to be riddled with emotion, energy, deeper meaning and complexity. Yet even with that in mind his style of art would change several times (a theme that is also noted in other artists such as Picasso) as he dabbled in impressionism, synthetism, and other genres that were popular then. Borrowing techniques here and inventing others there, Edvard would go on to be a pillar in the creation of the German Expressionism movement. In Expressionism, Munch found a way to look beyond the perfectionism of realists and impressionists and starkly put forth emotion on canvas, wood or whichever of the many mediums he chose to work with. Just as Edvard Munch's work would take on a more optimistic aura in his later years, this gifted artist's moods and emotions changed sharply throughout his life, giving rise to the suspicion that he was afflicted with bipolar disorder.

Munch is not the only artist who is thought or known to have suffered from this condition; in fact some researchers tend to think that it can bring about deep forms of varied creativity. Famous names from Hans Christian Andersen to Virginia Woolf, Napoleon to Marilyn Monroe are but a few of the stars, icons and history makers who may have battled this psychological condition. Now, just as it was in Munch's lifetime, no failsafe treatment exists for bipolar disorder. With his memories as inspiration, and his moods as his medium, there may have been little else to do but turn to art in order for Munch to use his internal earthquakes of feeling, energy and depression to help him cope with his own bipolar disorder. Indeed Edvard Munch turned melancholy and mania into timeless art, and gave the world an incredible collection of creative, poignant work.

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