Self-portrait. Between the clock and the bed by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, 1940–43, Oil on canvas, 149.5 x 120.5 cm, Munchmuseet, Oslo, M 23, © The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY HIP / Art Resource, NY

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Be Alert

Commentary by

We are not of night nor of darkness … be alert…. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:5–7 NASB)

In a journal entry early in his career Edvard Munch wrote, ‘I paint my soul’s diary’ (Tøjner 2003: 135). With this self-portrait, painted at the end of his life, we recognize that the artist’s soul is and has been a lonely one—and haunted by the spectre of death, the deaths of his mother and older sister, and the horrors of World War I.

Munch appears dishevelled and a bit disoriented. (In another journal entry he admits, ‘I stagger about amidst life that is alive’ (Tøjner 2003: 62).) He stands facing us in the doorway of two rooms that define his existence, his studio and his bedroom: where he works unceasingly and where he sleeps—or tries to sleep, since he suffered from severe insomnia.

Munch’s long gaunt body echoes the tall—faceless—clock and the bed, a bed in which time stops, where the finality of death is confronted, as Heidegger observed in Being and Time in 1927 (1962: 239). This is a painting about the disappearance of time, the imminence of death, and fear of The End. While time might stop for the clock, faceless as it is, the clock that ticks in Munch’s body doesn’t. (He died only a few months after he finished this painting.)

Death, what awaits us ‘on the other side’, and what we leave behind for others to pick through, destroy, or ignore, co-exist in this painting. The fear of death confronts us all, and it is thus also the fear of an artist. For Munch, who never married and had no children, painting was the shape of his life—how he kept time, marked time, and how he experienced the past and the future. His paintings are his progeny. They are the tangible, material, aesthetic evidence of his presence, his life, and its significance. What will become of them? How will they live on? Will they live on? And will anyone care?

Munch’s tired posture displays the fatigue of a long, difficult, and pain-filled personal history, but he remains alert, on guard. He still looks intensely at, and for, life.

 

References

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and Time, trans. by John Macquarrie and Edward Schouten Robinson (London: SCM Press)

Tøjner, Poul Erik. 2003. Munch: In His Own Words (Munich: Prestel)