Book Review: Steffen Kverneland’s Glorious Graphic Novel “Munch”

Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the most recognised paintings in the history of art. One could argue that alongside Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Monet’s Water Lilies, and Warhol’s Marilyn, it has become an iconic, and popular, painting which the general public are increasingly familiar with. With Steffen Kverneland’s graphic biography, simply entitled “Munch”, the modern and groundbreaking nature of the Norwegian painter’s works is reimagined in the contemporary comic form.

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A delight to read, fellow Norwegian illustrator and comic writer Kverneland’s take on the Expressionist painter is a testament to the artist’s ingenuity; moreover an exploration of how his paintings are an expression of Munch’s own life and experiences. This novel is not only a document of the life and art of Munch, but also gives us an insight into the illustrator’s own voice. Pages within the novel document the thought process of both Kverneland and his friend and colleague Lars Fiske, as they saunter around the places which most influenced the artist. From the first few pages we learn of how the author sought to create a visual representation and documentation of Munch, and throughout we are given glimpses into the illustrator’s own thoughts on his creation. Prior to those pages which depict the family members Munch lost, as Kverneland writes,

“THE NEXT CHAPTER OF THIS MUNCH BOOK HAS BEEN DIFFICULT TO DO. SORTA LIKE SCRAPING AWAY THE SCABS ON OLD SORES. MUNCH’S FAMILY DIED LIKE FLIES AROUND HIM, JUST LIKE MINE. I’M THE ONLY ONE LEFT NOW, SO IT MAKES SENSE THAT I IDENTIFIED WITH IT A LITTLE.”… “SOMETIMES IT ALMOST FEELS LIKE MAKING A VICARIOUS AUTOBIOGRAPHY.”

From this moment, the looming sense of darkness and death and loss which permeated Munch’s life comes to the fore. With the frames masterfully created, depicting how he came to create one of his most intimate paintings, Study/The Sick Child, (1885-86). Indeed in Munch’s own words, as transcribed within the image by Kverneland,

“IT WAS A BREAKTHROUGH IN MY ART – MOST OF WHAT I HAVE DONE SINCE HAD ITS GENESIS IN THIS PICTURE.”

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One of the most prominent figures in Munch’s life  was the Swedish poet, writer and artist August Strindberg, and this friendship is intertwined throughout the narrative of the novel,  as well as the many loves that both inspired and tormented him. Kverneland brings to life the character of Strindberg, with his bullish nature, and arrogance when it came to women, art and writing. He was indeed one of Munch’s closest friends, and the impact Strindberg’s subsequent insanity had on Munch during the last years of their friendship, whilst living in Paris and before the Swede returned home to undergo treatment for mental illness, is documented in Kverneland’s illustrations.

“FROM THAT DAY FORWARD, WHENEVER MENTION WAS MADE OF STRINDBERG – AND IT WAS NOT SELDOM – THE EXPRESSION ON MUNCH’S FACE WOULD BECOME SO PAINED THAT ONE EASILY UNDERSTOOD THAT THE LOSS OF STRINDBERG’S COMPANY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT SORROWS THAT LIFE HAD BESTOWED ON HIM.”

We come to experience the pain and sense of loss felt by Munch. As the novel progresses, the inner torment of Munch comes to the fore. Here for example, the longing for Mrs T (Missie Thaulow), the first woman he had loved during his time in Berlin, remains with him and whose piercing black eyes continued to haunt his dreams as well as inspire his works. The images, as well as the quotes, become more imbued with emotion, marking a distinct difference from the images of romantic yearning and sexual desire as seen earlier on. We are shown how The Scream came to be, through the blood red sky of a setting sun as seen behind the figure of Munch. Kverneland brings us through his frames, how the painting originated in a self portrait of Munch slumped across the railing of the bridge returning from a drunken night, and then how in a dream the tormented hollow-faced image of his inner self came to be. Rapidly Munch becomes a more isolated man, inflicted by sickness and later self-imposed isolation. Having outlived those artists, men and women who had welcomed him into the bohemian lifestyle of Christiania, Berlin and Paris, art came to consume his life. He is not merely an artist who should be remembered for the one painting, but a man whose entire life moulded the art he created.

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“MUNCH HAD BECOME A MONK WHOSE LIFE WAS DEVOTED TO ART.”

Scenes of debauchery, the bohemian life, alcohol infused delirium, sexual frustration and torment, fear, love, literature, and most of all artistic genius are encompassed within the pages of Kverneland’s novel. It brings Munch to life like never before. The story of his life is told not only through his own words and those of his friends and relatives, but through the imagination of Kverneland who creates some of Munch’s most iconic works out of the words and ideas of the artist himself. It is an art historians delight. It is aesthetically pleasing, Kverneland’s own artistic skill is masterful, as well as providing biographical and historical insight into a time and place which remains thoroughly intriguing.

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