By The Death Bed 1896
It was evening – Maja lay scarlet and burning hot in bed, her eyes sparkled and flitted restlessly about the room – she was delerious – Dearest Karleman take this away from me it is so painful – will you do that – she looked beseechingly at him – yes, I know you will – Do you see that head there – it is Death –
Vampire II 1895...
Lithograph and woodcut
Sheet size: 47,4 * 64,7 cm
Subject size: 38,8 * 55,9 cm
Woll: 41, VI
Printed in Berlin by Lassally
Grey wove medium weight
“Illness, madness and death were the black angels that watched over my cradle and have since followed me through life,” Munch wrote in his notes, almost as an explanation for all the death-related motifs that were to form a large, significant part of his pictorial world.
The second half of the 19th century witnessed a turn in artistic thematics and mode of expression. With the advent of realism in the 1870s and 1880s, everyday life in society, along with its darker sides, were preferred to the more idealising depictions of people and landscapes of Romanticism.
Consumption and tuberculosis were among the frightening illnesses of the age, and a favourite motif for contemporary visual art. Most families were affected in one way or other by these disease. Munch experienced the disease twice among those closest to him, and on one occasion he too was struck down by it: “One Christmas Eve, when 13 years old, I lie in my bed. The blood trickles from my mouth – the fever rages in my veins – fear cries out deep within me. Now, now, in just a moment, you will meet your Maker and be sentenced for eternity.”i The horror and the impressions from his mother’s death in 1868, when he was five years old, shook him and the family. Now he himself could feel the fever rampaging through his body, and his chances of a future were in jeopardy. In particular, the death of his sister, Sofie, at the age of 15 in 1877 left ineradicable traces in his soul, but were also to lay the foun- dation for a number of his major works.
In 1886, he presented the Study, now known as Sick Girl and one of his major works, to the public. The picture, which refers to Sofie’s illness and death, was executed in a number of versions over the ensuing decades, as a painting as well as etchings and lithographs (pp. 84–91). Nine years later, Munch painted the picture Fever, later known as By the Death Bed (1895, Rasmus Meyers Collections, Bergen Art Museum).
Here we present a black-and-white lithograph of the motif, done with lithographic stylus and Indian ink, printed in Paris at Auguste Clot’s in 1896. To the right in the picture we see a group of people; to the left a bed where a few contours indicate that a person is lying there. The mood is oppressive and serious – there is no communication between the five people standing by the bed. The back wall is marked by strong, horizontal wavy lines, broken by two sparsely indicated mask-like faces. Munch has portrayed a family situation where he formulates his personal experience in a picture that has universal validity. With the aid of Munch’s family photographs and paintings, such as Death in the Sickroom (1893, The National Gallery), we can possibly identify those present – farthest away, turning towards us, is Munch’s sister Inger; then come his sister Laura, his brother Andreas, the deeply religious father Christian Munch, with his clenched hands, and outermost, facing the onlooker, his mother Laura Cathrine (née Bjølstad), or aunt Karen Bjølstad. Only the figure of Edvard is lacking. It is he, the artist, who conveys the scene, from the viewpoint of the sick.
Despite the diagonals of the composition, the depth perspective is very much reduced, and the room closes in round the coffin-like bed. We can only just make out the contours of the back of Sofie’s head and her hands over the blanket, where she wrestles from her bed with the fever and the fear of death. In Munch’s illustrated diary entries from 1890–92, he outlines a story about Berta (Maja) and Karleman – his sister Sofie and himself. Berta is on the point of death, and Karleman says: “It was evening – Maja lay red and burning-hot in her bed, her eyes glittered and wan- dered restlessly round the room – she was delirious – Dearest Karleman take this away from me, it hurts so much – please do – she looked imploringly at him – yes, you will – Look at that head there – it’s death.”ii
Sofie died in 1877. In By the Death Bed Munch has chosen to portray the members of the family as adults. The ghostlike faces bear witness to the fact that the strong memories of childhood haunted Munch for the rest of his life.
Despite the fact that illness and death were frequent motifs in contemporary art, Munch’s painting met with considerable resistance when he exhibited By the Death Bed in 1895 – and some people even tried to question the mental state of the artist. His simplification of form, choice of colours and intensity were extremely alien and incomprehensible to many.
When Munch in the following year – 1896 – decided to do a graphic version of the motif, he had arrived in Paris. He had established contact with the eminent printer Auguste Clot, and at his workshop Munch printed some of his most exquisite graphics. But, despite the fact that Clot taught Munch the demanding process of multicoloured printing, Munch nevertheless decided to do By the Death Bed as a monochrome, black print. After considerable work on the stone and the printing of several versions, he finally ended up with this version, where wavy lines, the death masks on the wall and the despairing grasping of the bed by the woman convey the grief-stricken message. Variations in expression were achieved by the choice of various types of paper. This lithograph has been printed on coloured paper that accentuates the gloomy mood and underlines the gravity of the situation.