“By the Deathbed,” Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch was an artist given to obsession over graphic notions: his most famous image, “The Scream,” actually had four different versions¹. Other compositions had dozens of versions in pastels, lithographs, oil paintings, and woodblocks. Insofar as Munch’s was an art of iteration, how can we discuss an isolated work? I propose here to focus on one such piece- his 1915 painting By the Deathbed– and draw in to a limited extent references to a few additional articulations of essentially the same compositions.
In all of the versions of By the Deathbed, Munch situates a figure stretched out facing away from the viewer. A cluster of mourners crowd the side of the bed in each work, though the expressions of the mourners vary in each piece: in the pastel version, a feeling of deference to the deceased/deceasing pervades; in the oil paint version from 1895, we see the central male mourner (interestingly the character with the most detail infused into the image) in a more pleading mode. In all of the versions, grief is the predominant mood, with the ages of the female figures varying widely over the different pieces.
In the 1915 version of the painting, the version of the painting I’d like to focus on, Munch uses the same characters for the most part, but the mood and tenor of expressions is much more subtle and uncertain: the older male mourner holds his hands before him, with an expression that could be of deep prayerfulness, pleading (like the 1895 version), or even relief. It is harder to say with certainty what he expresses, and that makes this version of the painting perhaps the most accomplished one.
The nearest figure to the viewer- a female figure- has an almost other-worldly face and expression. She looks like a mask, a clown, or an opera actress highly made-up for the occasion. Her lips are tight and her emotions difficult to ascertain. She stretches her hand out intently, perhaps to grab the medicine bottle before her so as to keep herself preoccupied in the midst of the dreary scene. Perhaps the duties of caring for the dead/dying man falls to her as the others are lost in their own thoughts and feelings. The remaining figures are impossible to discern, as they lack normal human features. Their unnatural coloring says more about their mood than anything else- a woman has a bright red face, perhaps quarreling with the dead person or even with God; the man at her side’s green face betraying nausea and discontent.
One of the most interesting things about the piece is the wallpaper behind the group. Whereas some of the unease and tension of the composition in other versions of this painting comes from the strange perspective over the elongated body of the lying figure, in this piece from 1915, we see a warping and metaphysical distortion of space echoing from the man to the mourners. The pattern of the wallpaper unevenly melts upward and careens toward the mourners in increasingly dark and maroon tones. Interestingly, a common pigment name for that maroon color in Europe was “Caput Mortuum,” or “Death’s Head.”²
This 1915 version is not the only version of the composition to feature strange wallpaper- the pastel version from 1893 replaces the pattern of wallpaper for morbid, grotesque heads and skulls lining the wall. These figures seem to taunt the dying man as he crosses the threshold into death, many of them amused and smiling. This might suggest to us that Munch saw the melting wallpaper as the patched fiber of spiritual fabric surrounding the scene, warping or expanding as the metaphysical balance of the room changes with the death of the lying figure. This more subtle suggestion of the supernatural impact of a death and the prayers and grief of the survivors makes the 1915 version of the painting more compelling and inviting as a viewer.
In conclusion, it would not be fair to say that every successive iteration an artist makes of a core concept improves or enhances the idea. There are times when the purest expression of a graphic idea is the first expression. Nonetheless, the range of moods and experiences, as well as the mystical possibilities of the piece are more refined in this image of Munch’s. The viewer can, in this piece, find comfort, grief, and transcendence within it, whereas other versions focus on articulating one particular impression of the scene.