- Edvard Munch
- SELF-PORTRAIT (AGAINST TWO-COLOURED BACKGROUND)
signed E.M. (lower left)
- oil on canvas
L. M. Larsen, Norway (acquired from the artist in 1904)
Ottar Gabrielsen (probably acquired in 1952)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Sâo Paulo, 11ème Biennale du Musée d’Art Moderne de Sâo Paulo, 1953-54
Oslo, Kunstnerforbundet, Munchbilder i privat eie (Munchbilder in Privatbesitz), 1958, no. 18
London, Marlborough Fine Art, Edvard Munch – Emil Nolde. Oils. The Relationship of Their Art, 1969, no. 11
Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Edvard Munch. Gemälde und Zeichnungen aus einer norwegischen Privatsammlung, 1979, no. 8, illustrated in the catalogue
Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch. Behind ‘The Scream’, New Haven & London, 2005, no. 113, illustrated in colour
Munch by Himself (exhibition catalogue), Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Munch-museet, Oslo & Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, no. 50, illustrated in colour p. 91
Few artists have searched the depths of their own personalities to the extent that Munch did in his self-portraits, and Self-portrait (against Two-coloured Background) is a remarkable example of this merciless introspection, as well as of his avant-garde style. The artist himself once said: ‘For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without rudder’ (quoted in S. Prideaux, op. cit., pp. 228-29). His dramatic separation from Tulla Larsen in 1902 had a profound effect on Munch, and the trauma of the surrounding events haunted him for several years. Nowhere was his deeply rooted anxiety and his existential fear reflected with such a powerful effect as in his self-portraits executed during this time, some of which focus on the artist’s physical appearance, while others represent allegorical self-images.
Munch himself considered the years immediately following 1902 the unhappiest and most difficult, yet most productive ones of his career. It was during this period that he moved increasingly away from depictions of people in outdoor settings towards the introverted motif of the self-portrait. Despite his growing artistic success, particularly in Germany, this period of Munch’s life was marked by an acute psychological crisis, so poignantly discernible in his self-portraits. It was this emotional and mental instability that gave the artist the insight to produce such masterpieces as the present work, in which he reached a certain level of abstraction, expressing the fears and anxieties of the human condition not only through the mere physical likeness of his portraits, but also through the pictorial elements of colour and form.
In the present work, the artist adopts the same pose as in Self-portrait. Moonlight (fig. 2). Depicted in three-quarter profile, he is seen in front of a large, overpowering shadow, which in Self-portrait (against Two-coloured Background) is replaced by the planes of green and yellow paint applied in quick, swirling brushstrokes symbolising the artist’s inner turmoil, and splattered with stains of blood-red pigment. The remarkable economy of means, reducing the background to blocks of bold colour, channels the viewer's attention to the figure's face, which holds the expressive power of the work.
Writing about Munch’s self-portraits of this period, Iris Müller-Westermann commented: ‘While Munch’s reputation grew steadily in Germany, he created between 1904 and 1907 a series of self-portraits that, in various ways, deal with the subject of loneliness […] In Self-portrait in front of Two-coloured Background (1904), based on the juxtaposition of green and yellow, the shapes have been much simplified and transformed into abstract colour fields. Instead of eyes, only the sockets can be seen, and they are directed inwards […] In these self-portraits, the artist seems to be controlled by forces other than his own will’ (I. Müller-Westermann, in Munch by Himself (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 90). One of his most powerful allegorical self-portraits is Self-portrait in Hell of 1903 (fig. 3) where the artist’s naked body, a sign of his vulnerability, is set against a flame-like background. With its two-coloured background and a three-quarter profile, this can be seen as a mirror-image of the present work; depicted here in a dark, monochrome robe, this sense of vulnerability is shifted from the artist’s body to the haunting expression of his face.
These years of unrest and psychological turmoil in Munch’s life were marked by a nomadic lifestyle, with frequent travels across Europe. Having visited Paris in 1903 and the early months of 1904, Munch had an opportunity to see paintings by Fauve artists, and was undoubtedly deeply impressed by their vivid canvases and their daring use of colour. The bright green and yellow tones he used for the background of the present work were certainly influenced by the Fauve works he saw in Paris. However, whilst the French artists characteristically employed a bright palette to depict a sense of joy and man’s harmony with nature, Munch adapted it to his own, very different artistic sensibility, rendering a feeling of inner torment and anxiety.
Fig. 1, Photograph of Edvard Munch, 1905
Fig. 2, Edvard Munch, Self-portrait. Moonlight, 1904-06, woodcut
Fig. 3, Edvard Munch, Self-portrait in Hell, 1903, oil on canvas, Munch-museet, Oslo
Fig. 4, Edvard Munch, Self-portrait in front of a Red Background, 1906, oil on canvas, Munch-museet, Oslo