In this self-portrait, Edvard Munch has depicted himself with his face turned to the viewer. The artist’s face and hands seem almost luminous against a dark, shapeless background. This highlighting of Munch’s hands and head is striking, and for an artist these parts of the body are especially significant. At the centre of the composition, Munch’s right hand is raised to his chest, covering his heart. His intense gaze is directed straight at the viewer, but he is looking just as much into himself and his own universe. The artist is lit from below but seems also to emit his own internal light. Together with the diffuse background and the cigarette smoke, this gives the picture a touch of mystery.
Munch was thirty-one when he painted this self-portrait. A few years earlier he had been part of a circle in Berlin that would gather at a local tavern named Zum schwarzen Ferkel. A key member of this group was the Swedish author August Strindberg, but also the Polish poet and pianist Stanislaw Przybyszewski and his Norwegian wife Dagny Juel were important figures in Munch’s life at the time (indeed, Przybyszewski contributed to the very first monograph on Munch). Strindberg’s interest in mysticism and the occult, as well as his theories about his own paintings, may have influenced Munch. Strindberg regarded himself as merely a medium or conduit for what was painted on the canvas.
Text: Ellen J. Lerberg
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0