Munch became ill at the turn of the year 1918–19. He was probably suffering from the Spanish flu, a deadly influenza that would claim the lives of many millions of people during a global epidemic from 1917 to 1920. In a series of studies, sketches, and paintings, Munch detailed the various stages of the disease and how death came ever closer.
It is a sick, incapacitated artist who meets our gaze in Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu. His hair is thin, his complexion is jaundiced, and he is wrapped in a dressing gown and blanket. Munch shows us his frail condition, intimately and straight to the point, as he sits in a wicker chair in front of his unmade sickbed. The style itself seems equally direct, with simple, wavy lines and with colours applied with rough sweeps of the brush – red, blue, yellow, green, and brown – used to depict the figure. Munch’s experiences become condensed here: the room seems narrow, and the dominant yellow hues heighten the composition’s sense of restlessness.
The self-portrait belongs to a later phase of Munch’s career, created a few years after he set up house at Ekely on the outskirts of Kristiania. Munch had recently completed his major decoration of the University Aula, and the colours and monumentality of this self-portrait seem to be a continuation of this work. Here, however, he has returned to one of his recurring themes: himself. The picture’s large format, broad register, and forceful style make it stand out among Munch’s many self-portraits.
Text: Øystein Ustvedt
From "Edvard Munch in the National Museum", Nasjonalmuseet 2008, ISBN 978-82-8154-035-54