Article - Ibsen and Munch

Ibsen’s literary production was one of the most central sources of inspiration for Edvard Munch’s art. In this essay Lars Roar Langslet closely examines the connections between these two great pillars of Norwegian art. The text is based on a lecture given at the Rome conference Ibsen and the Arts: Painting - Sculpture - Architecture in October 2001.

Lars Roar Langslet: Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch

Translated by Patrick Nigel Chaffey

“There is a relationship of perpetual reciprocity between literature and pictorial art”, writes Professor F. J. Billeskov Jansen, the Nestor of Nordic literary research. “The fact that the process is so smooth, albeit not always so happy, rests on kinship between the inner vision of the writer and the inner vision of the pictorial artist: they both have, in their mind’s eye, a bright or dark vision of what they want to create in the material of their trade: the word, the lines, the colours, the canvas.”

He illustrates his view with an epigram formulated by the Greek writer Simonides (c. 500 BC): “Painting is silent poetry – and poetry talking painting” – and he mentions a number of examples of great painters having inspired great literature, or vice versa. (Muserne er kærlige søstre, Copenhagen 1992, pp. 23 and 8)

An interesting example he could have mentioned is the unique ‘relationship of reciprocity’ between Ibsen’s literary work and Munch’s pictorial art, which is my topic. This exchange between them was obviously connected with their fundamental aesthetic viewpoints and uniqueness as artists.

In Ibsen we find a number of statements about the interplay between painting and literature. Both Ibsen and Munch interpret “what in the mind flashes” – the painter’s visions are “poetic visions” and his pictures are “colour poetry” (the cycle of sonnets “In the picture gallery”), just as the poet for his part “paints poet’s pictures” (“A birdsong”). We must not forget that Ibsen did have ambitions about becoming a painter, and later in life he considered himself to be a connoisseur of pictorial art. But even more important than such preludes to an aesthetic theory with synaesthetic implications is the fact that Ibsen was such an essentially visual writer. We know that he had a very clear picture in his head of his own stage characters, how they were dressed, how the space around them was furnished and coloured – often it was painful for him to see his own plays on stage, because so much had been changed. Ibsen’s stage directions are unusually precise and richly detailed, almost ‘like a painting’. Ibsen’s use of the actual stage space never involves needless background or decor, but the detailed descriptions communicate a series of meaning-bearing visual suggestions (John Northam), which constitute an important ‘subtext’ in the process of the action. This too may be implied in Ibsen’s famous statement in a letter to Georg Brandes in 1871: “A writer’s task is essentially to see, not to reflect.”

Edvard Munch for his part felt an urge to write, and his many memoranda, which have now been published (Poul Erik Tøjner: Munch med egne ord, Oslo 2000 – his notes on Ibsen have unfortunately not been included), reveal what skills he possessed as a writer. In an interview he gave in 1897 concerning the exhibition that was being shown at the time, Munch says that “almost everything you see started as a manuscript.” (Arne Eggum: Livsfrisen fra maleri til grafikk, Oslo 1987, p. 16). In the poetic memoranda we recognise many Munch motifs – pictures strike out in words, and words beget pictures, in a constant cycle. But a lot of his famous pictorial motifs had their source in important impulses from his reading – inter alia from Ibsen, indeed one may no doubt say: particularly from Ibsen. Here we see the ‘reciprocal relationship’ in action: The pictorial impression that had etched itself into Munch’s consciousness – from his childhood, or from important moments since – could suddenly acquire new meaning when Munch made them into elements in the theatrical world of Ibsenian tragedies. Or the reverse: Outlines that were originally visualisations of scenes in Ibsen were later reborn as central motifs in Munch’s own, very personal pictorial world.

Edvard Munch has been called a literary painter – but not because he illustrates literary texts or prefers to seek his motifs in books; it is rather the ‘literary’ motifs that haunt him. They seek him out and strike him because in a mysterious way they call forth – and melt together with – the material of his own experience, they uncover threads in the destiny of his own life, and bear them to fruition in pictorial expressions in which his impressions from reading and his personal experience ascend into a higher unity.

In this sense Ibsen’s writings became one of the sources from which Edvard Munch’s pictorial imagination drew throughout his life. It is characteristic that in the collections of the Munch Museum we find a total of roughly 500 works that are considered to be related to Ibsen themes – everything from a wealth of rapidly executed sketches to lithographs and large paintings; and a host of Munch’s works in other collections are connected with the same thematic area. Indeed, there have also been a series of exhibitions dealing with “Munch and Ibsen”.

To see was the most important thing for both Ibsen and Munch – but certainly not in an external, photographically recording sense. The artist’s ability and task is to see inwards – so that external motifs and inner, mental agitation are “lived through” (to use one of Ibsen’s favourite expressions) and melted together into valid expression. I do not paint what I see, but what I have seen, Munch once said – and Ibsen could have said the same about his “poetic visions”.

They met on just a few occasions in little Kristiania after Ibsen’s return from his long exile – Ibsen was at that time 65 years old and internationally renowned; Munch was only 30, fighting to be recognised with his controversial poetic expressionism. Munch returns time and again to these episodic meetings, and his admiration for Ibsen shines through in his valuable fragments of memoirs. What was most important was their meeting in the autumn of 1895, when Munch’s ‘scandalous exhibition’ of pictures from the ‘Frieze of Life’ was being shown in Kristiania.

He was now being attacked from all sides for his “sick” pictures; at a public meeting at which his pictures were debated, Munch and the Munch family’s “insanity” were even analysed by a famous psychiatrist, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson had suggested the same diagnosis in a newspaper. It was at this point that Ibsen came to the exhibition and let himself be shown round by the young artist, taking his time and showing Munch interest and sympathy. This made an indelible impression on Munch. Such support compensated for everything he was now experiencing in the form of adversity and hatred. Ibsen’s parting words were something Munch was never to forget: ‘Things will go with you as they did with me: The more enemies, the more friends!’ And on that point his prediction was absolutely right!

Why did Ibsen go the exhibition? Hardly because he was enthusiastic about avant-garde art. His own taste in pictorial art was conventional – this can be seen from the pictures with which he surrounded himself in his home. He never bought anything by Munch. Yet he must have wished to show the denigrated artist sympathy – not least because Bjørnson had been on the side of the attackers. He knew that this would be noticed (and indeed it was reported, even in French newspapers).

Munch says that Ibsen was particularly interested in the painting “Woman in three stages” – he stood for a long time, looking at it. “I said: The dark one, standing between the tree trunks by the naked woman, is the nun – woman’s shadow as it were – sorrow and death. The naked one is the woman who loves life. Beside them again is the light woman walking out towards the sea – towards infinity. That is the woman of longing. Between the trunks on the far right stands a man – in agony and uncomprehending.”

When Munch read When we dead awaken four years later, he ‘discovered’ that the three female characters in Ibsen’s “dramatic epilogue” had been based on the painting, and for the rest of his life he was convinced that Ibsen had received inspiration from it. In his many drawings for the play (a good 40 altogether) he used this picture as an important motif. Most Ibsen experts have probably taken Munch’s words with several pinches of salt – but both the Munch researcher Gösta Svenæus and the Ibsen researcher Daniel Haakonsen are of the opinion that here “Ibsen reveals his knowledge of Edvard Munch’s paintings” – the stylised use of colour in Ibsen’s last play corresponds completely with the colours in “Woman in three stages” (Haakonsen: Henrik Ibsen – mennesket og kunstneren, Oslo 1981, p. 258).

This must be guesswork – Ibsen never noted down what he allowed himself to be ‘inspired’ by, and the most important thing was of course what he transformed such impulses into. Nevertheless it is not improbable that Munch’s painting was of significance. Ibsen had a very exact memory for visual impressions that really affected him. But the lines are undeniably clearer from his meeting with Gustav Vigeland’s huge relief “Hell” (and behind that Rodin’s “Porte de l‘Enfer”) to Rubek’s sculpture “Day of the Resurrection”.

If there are lines from “Woman in three stages” to When we dead awaken, then it is in the event the only sign we have of possible impulses from Munch to Ibsen.

On the other hand we have overwhelming documentation of the stream of impulses in the opposite direction – from Ibsen to Munch. This runs right through the whole of his production, from the drawings of his boyhood to his final paintings.

A group of its own is constituted by Munch’s portraits of Ibsen. The first of these was a poster from 1897, for a production of John Gabriel Borkman in Paris. The playwright’s powerful head dominates the picture, and on the right we can see a rapidly sketched coastal landscape, where a lighthouse is casting its beams of light into space. The symbolism is simple, as befits a poster: Ibsen is the bearer of light, the lighthouse illuminating the hidden zones in human life. Ibsen’s eyes are portrayed in the same way as a number of people described them in words: One eye is narrowed, the other is wide open. We notice that Ibsen sees us, but at the same time he sees beyond us, into unknown worlds.

The en-face portrait was developed further both in lithography and paintings. Now Ibsen is sitting at the Grand Café, against a dark, undulating curtain that lets in a fleeting glimpse of life in the street outside in the dreary rainy weather. He has turned his back on it. It is a lonely, introspective human being who is staring in front of him with his psychic eyes. His face has a phosphorescent shine, as if it were illuminated by a source of light from within.

It is interesting to note that one of Munch’s last self-portraits, “By the window” (c. 1940), has a pictorial arrangement that echoes the Ibsen picture: en face, with his back to the window which allows a glimpse of a snow-covered ‘Borkman landscape’. Here too part of the face is illuminated by a red glow from within. We find many such echo effects in Munch’s constant reworkings of old themes. But here it is in addition natural to recall several statements that show that Munch identifies with Ibsen and his great stage figures – in particular in the constellations Borkman-Ibsen-Munch or Rubek-Ibsen-Munch.

This identification provides the key to understanding why Munch links his ‘picture commentaries’ to only a few of Ibsen’s plays – The Pretenders, Peer Gynt, Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, John Gabriel Borkman, When we dead awaken, but never to Brand, A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, The Master Builder or Rosmersholm. In a couple of instances it is true that the starting point was that he was given a commission – but on the other hand he would hardly have accepted the commission if it had not appealed so strongly to him. And this appeal derived its strength precisely from the intense feeling that his own destiny and character were mirrored in the Ibsen plays to which he related. It was above all the characters who were doomed to failure that he was concerned with – those who doubt, suffer, dream, weave intrigues against others – and are broken down under the force of destiny. In them he saw himself. “I am reading Ibsen again and I read him as me [myself],” he wrote in a letter in 1908.

We can see this in the seemingly superficial fact that Munch gives his own facial features to a number of Ibsen characters. In The Pretenders it is King Skule who becomes an alter Munch – “God’s stepchild on Earth”, the doubter who was chosen to be the victim of an all-powerful destiny. But it is clear that he also identifies with Peer Gynt – the artist with the shining visions and excessively tall stories – who goes into spiritual decline and ends up in the wilderness, the madhouse, a shipwreck and the burnt-out pine-barren, as his own visionary abilities gradually dry up.

Munch produced his most powerful picture commentaries on Ibsen in a series of sketches for the scenography in Ghosts. This was a commission from the famous theatre director Max Reinhardt in Berlin, in the year before Ibsen’s death. Munch was taken by this commission, because Ghosts had in a special way become his own drama. The tragedy of the painter Osvald Alving, lusting for life yet unable to work, standing under the curse of heredity feeling himself condemned to ruin and destruction, was for Munch a self-portrait. The curse of heredity was something he had known since his childhood. The schism between awareness of death and longing for light and redemption – Osvald’s “Give me the sun!” – was part of his own torn mind.

But Osvald has not been given Munch’s facial features, as one might have expected. The explanation may be the simple one that these were only to be ‘mood-inspiring sketches’ for a theatre which did not need any hints about how the characters ought to look. Perhaps there is also another explanation: that the identification might be too close, far too painful. In any event none of the Osvald pictures has clear facial features.

The commission from Reinhardt had only one premise: Through a large window in the background there must be a view of the landscape and the changing light effects outside. Otherwise everything was left to Munch.

Ibsen describes the view in the final scene as follows: “The glacier and the mountain peaks in the background are bathed in the shining light of morning.” Munch painted it as a Romsdal mountain landscape up towards the highest peak, with the sun streaming forth.

Later this motif was to recur in his many sketches of “Towards the light”, with an Osvald figure at the top, embracing the sun – and in his monumental painting of “The Mountain of Humanity”, which may also have connecting lines to The Pretenders and Bishop Nikolas’ vision (Act 2) of the Flood: Only a single peak is left standing in the great tidal wave, and up this “is climbing a whole species” to save itself from the flood. But this motif gets its great variant in Munch’s magnificent picture of “The Sun” in the Aula of the University of Oslo. The mountain and the scrambling swarm of people have gone, only a low landscape with sloping rocks and the sea are left, sucking in the life-giving force of the sun. Munch provided a very telling comment: That is “Osvald’s sun”.

It is also fascinating to see how Munch designs the interiors for use on stage in the case of Ghosts. He is faithful to Ibsen’s stage directions but goes into them in depth and supplements them with elements that were completely his own. There were in particular two features that Max Reinhardt immediately noticed when the sketches came:

The first was the colour of the carpets. “They are the same colour as diseased gums. We must make an effort to find a carpet of that tone. It will put the actors into the right mood!” The colour that Reinhardt was so taken by was “borrowed” from “Death in the Sickroom” (c. 1893), Munch’s haunting picture of ruin and death – but there it is the floor that is painted that colour.

The second was a massive, black armchair, in which Osvald was to sit in the final scene, with his back to the public – just like the seated dying girl in “Death in the Sickroom”. “The armchair says it all!” exclaimed Reinhardt with great enthusiasm, “its black colour summarises completely the atmosphere of the drama.” The armchair recurs in Munch’s paintings of illness and death, but most often it is the well-known basket chair from Munch’s childhood home that becomes the symbol of death’s inevitable presence. Here he replaces it with a broad, black chair, towering like a catafalque in the confined space of the room. Immediately Osvald sits down in it, we understand that he is going to die.

The black armchair, the sick colour of the walls and the shining mo untain landscape which was later to be transformed into “Osvald’s sun” – these are the most striking visual suggestions in Munch’s pictorial comments on Ghosts.

The other play that triggered particularly important pictures from Munch is John Gabriel Borkman. Ibsen had given him advance notice of the play while they were wandering around the exhibition in 1895: “As usual there will be something diabolical coming from me again, something for you.”

The book came the following year, and Munch was enthralled. He must have experienced the ruined bank manager as an artist in disguise – the self-assertive artist who rides roughshod over other people’s lives to achieve his ends, and who is broken down and ruined because he has betrayed love.

Again we see that Munch’s fascination was connected with identification. In 1910, when he did a number of drawings for the play, he confided to his painter friend Ludvig Ravensberg, who kept a diary while they were together: “Ibsen has felt himself snowed in in this country, it is himself and Norway he means … John Gabriel Borkman, that’s Ibsen …”. In the same breath Munch tells of his own victories abroad, “and even so I must go around feeling like a John Gabriel Borkman.”

Of this play Munch is reputed to have said: “There’s no use in painting winter now that Ibsen has done so in John Gabriel Borkman.” But what concerned him was the frost in people’s minds and the snow like death’s pale shroud over the scene in which Borkman dies because “an icy iron hand seized him by the heart”.

A famous Munch motif crops up for the first time among the drawings for John Gabriel Borkman: He is illustrating an episode that is only talked about in the play, in which old man Foldal is run over by Mrs Wilton’s and Erhart Borkman’s rapidly moving sleigh and knocked over into a snowdrift. This motif later became “Galloping horse” (1912) – a symbol of the untameable life force that pushes everything and everybody aside. The horse is rushing towards us in an orgy of colours against pale snow, and the feeble people are giving way. In the context of Borkman this is an anecdotal comment; yet we feel an echo of the keynote of the play: People who are run over when life rushes past them.

More important in the context of Ibsen are the drawings of Borkman wandering restlessly upstairs in the hall, like a caged animal: “Back and forth, – back and forth goes the wolf,” says Mrs Borkman. Afterwards Munch painted several self-portraits in a Borkman posture, including “In internal revolt” (1919) – a picture of caging, tension and angst. “Even so I must go around feeling like a John Gabriel Borkman,” he had said to Ravensberg.

We can see the most powerful motif in the many drawings of Borkman finally breaking out of his self-imposed imprisonment up in the hall and stamping his way through the snow to an open plateau with a dead pine tree beside the seat and a magnificent view of a frozen landscape with its fjord and hills in the starlight. It is here that Borkman collapses and dies, and the two women find him – “we two shadows – over the dead man”. The dead pine tree in the frosty landscape becomes a pictorial omen of death, just as the armchair was in Osvald’s final scene.

We meet the three human shadows again in the lithograph “Starry Night” (c. 1916) – the actual figures are out of the picture, the connection with Borkman is already weakened, and the motif has acquired its independent validity. This ‘detachment’ from Borkman has been taken one step further in the magnificent painting “Starry Night” (1923/24), in which we simply perceive one shadow, of Munch himself, for it is the steps down to the garden from his house, Ekely, that we can see in the foreground – where he lived in loneliness from 1916 to his death in 1944.

The very last woodcut Munch produced was again a comment on the Borkman motif (in the opinion of Eli Greve in Liv og verk i lys av tresnittene, Oslo 1963): Even the shadows of people have gone; all that is left is the skeleton of the dead pine tree – the death symbol in Ibsen’s and Munch’s final scene.

This shows how a motif from the Borkman pictures was gradually transformed into a central motif in Munch’s deeply personal pictorial world. Yet even so, Borkman did not disappear from this motif on the way. He is invisibly present by virtue of the identification that was there right from the beginning: at Ekely Munch isolated himself more and more, chose his art rather than life (like Rubek in When we dead awaken) and often wandered sleeplessly around in the large, almost unfurnished rooms at night. Borkman and his landscape merged unnoticeably with Ekely. In the late self-portrait in front of the window at Ekely we saw Munch in the same pictorial arrangement as the Ibsen portrait, with a snow-covered Borkman landscape outside. In the world of pictures Borkman and Ibsen had become one with Munch.


Here I have only been able to show a few examples of the reciprocal relationship between Ibsen and Munch. I have given a more detailed presentation in a book with Norwegian and English text (Henrik Ibsen – Edvard Munch, Oslo 1994).

It may seem strange that this relationship of reciprocity became so intense – on the face of it they represented two different forms of art with radically different expression registers, and they belonged to two different periods of time that were soon to have a gulf of separation between them.

However we must remember that they met in the 1890s, a period when poetry and mystical symbolism were once again making their impression on art, with elements as well from psychological examinations in depth and philosophical and religious renewal. Both the ageing Ibsen and the young Munch gained nourishment from this spiritual climate for the ‘pictorial poetry’ they were each in his own way developing. When they met, it was therefore in a context of mutual understanding and sympathy, cutting across the distance in age and circle of activity.

Munch felt kinship on the personal level as well. “Ibsen I understand, we had sympathy for each other,” he said to Ravensburg. “He perhaps felt just as shy and lonely as I did … He felt lonely, abandoned, kicked …” Both had experienced to the full prejudices, small-mindedness, lack of understanding and hatred. Both were recognised late – later in Norway than in other countries. Both sought loneliness and chose art rather than life. Both saw their calling in seeing into the depths of existence and gathering what they had seen into artistically completed expression. For both of them the path of art became a lonely struggle, through bitter wrestling with themselves, in passion and agony. But both for Ibsen and Munch that path was the only possible one.

There was a secret kinship between them, both in experience of life and vision. The reciprocal relationship between them had its deepest basis in that.

Translation: Patrick Nigel Chaffey