Curing Edvard Munch

"I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city — my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

In describing the sensation that inspired his iconic masterpiece, The Scream in 1892, Edvard Munch might well have been talking about his own tragic life.  Not only was his childhood marked by the deaths of his 220px-The_Scream[1]mother and his favourite sister from tuberculosis, but Edvard was often sickly himself.  His father, Christian Munch, raised his surviving children in an extremely religious environment (including telling his children that their mother was looking down from Heaven at them whenever they misbehaved).  There was also a history of mental illness in the family (one of his younger sisters was 220px-Edvard_Munch_1921[1] diagnosed with mental illness and spent much of her life in an asylum).  Edvard would eventually comment that, "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies - the heritage of consumption and insanity". 

Starting from adolescence, Edvard's art came to dominate his life.  He disappointed his father by becoming a painter (which his father considered to be an "unholy trade").  Over the next several decades, Edvard Munch's artistic talents were increasingly recognized. Unfortunately, the troubles in his life increased as well.  The death of his father left his siblings destitute and Edvard went into debt to support them all (including his sister in the asylum).  As he grew more prominent in art, he became more self-destructive as well.  In addition to his chronic alcoholism and tobacco use, he also began taking a bizarre cocktail of "nerve" and pain medications to keep himself going.  His health was never good so his drinking and hard living sent him into a downward spiral.  

Munch's relationship with his mistress, Tulla Larsen, ended after an accidental shooting that permanently damaged two of his fingers.  He was frequently given to public brawls and drunken binges that alarmed his friends and family.  Although he was getting frequent commissions and public honours, Munch hit rock bottom by 1907.  Actively delusions, he initially checked into a clinic in Copenhagen but fled during the admission interview.  Due to Munch's worsening condition and failure to seek help on his own, his friend, Emmanuel Goldstein, forced him into the private clinic of Dr. Daniel Jacobsen in Copenhagen.

Although his medical reputation wasn't the best, Dr. Jacobsen ran a successful clinic that catered to well-to-do patients.  On admission, Jacobsen diagnosed Munch as suffering from "dementia paralytica" linked to his alcoholism (which nowadays would probably be diagnosed as either delirium tremens or Wernicke's encephalopathy).  As it was, he was lucky not to get a diagnosis such as General Paresis (neurosyphilis) which might have led to him being locked up for life (which is why Munch had been afraid to seek help).  In many respects, the rest cure that Jacobsen prescribed for Munch was (if you'll pardon the expression) just what the doctor ordered.  On admission, Jacobsen had Munch placed in a locked room for eight days until his hallucinations and other symptoms came under control.  Jacobsen took Munch off the cocktail of drugs and alcohol that he had been taking for years and gave him no other medication except for "sleeping drops" (probably chloral hydrate).  During his stay at the clinic, Munch was given ample bed rest, good food, fresh air, and regular sun baths that helped him immensely.

Some of the other treatments that Jacobsen prescribed were a little more bizarre however.  In addition to "electrification" (which basically amounted to running mild electrical currents through the patient's body using a special generator), the Jacobsen clinic also specialized in special treatment baths.  These baths involved diluted carbonic acid with extra ingredients including (among other things) iron filings, salt, soda, potash, sulfur, fir needles, oat bark, malt and bran.  For patients suffering from hallucinations, the baths could also include milk or bouillon, and even blood from freshly slaughtered animals (and I'll bet you thought that "bloodbath" was a figure of speech).  Munch was fortunately spared the blood baths but otherwise had the full course of treatment that Jacobsen's clinic had to offer.

Munch actually enjoyed the electrification sessions.  At one point, he drew a cartoon of himself wired up to the electrical apparatus with the caption: "Professor Jacobsen passing electricity through the famous painter Edvard Munch changing his crazy brain with the positive power of masculinity and the negative power of femininity".  While he was fond of the female staff (with whom he often flirted), his relationship with Jacobsen was always lukewarm.  When Jacobsen suggested that Munch paint his portrait, Munch complied by representing him in the painting as a somewhat domineering figure (Jacobsen actually didn't like it that much although the portrait is now considered one of Munch's best).  Along with other paintings,  Munch also completed a journal of his stay at Jacobsen's clinic,which was later published as "The Mad Poet's Diary" [Den gale Dikters Dagbok].

While Munch had initially planned to stay only eight months, he didn't actually leave the clinic until 1909.  It was an expensive stay for him (no socialized medicine back then) and he needed to borrow money to cover the costs as well as continue caring for his surviving family members.  Still, when he finally left the clinic, Edward Munch made quite a spectacle of it.  He dressed up in formal wear and made his elaborate goodbyes to the other patients stating that "Peer Gynt bids farewell to his fellow lunatics".  Daniel Jacobsen offered to accompany him Oslo (and capitalize on some of the publicity over his star patient) but Munch refused.  Edvard Munch never returned to the clinic and rarely referred to it in later years.  When Jacobsen later sent him a number of sketches that Munch had drawn at the clinic and asked him to autograph them (which would have raised their value considerably), Munch kept the drawings instead. 

Edvard Munch spent the last two decades of his life in relative solitude at his estate in Oslo.  He followed enough of Daniel Jacobsen's lifestyle recommendations to avoid a repetition of that terrible breakdown of 1907, including avoiding "tobacco, alcohol and poisonous women".   Despite a bout of Spanish flu in 1918, he remained relatively healthy although his old age was overshadowed by the Nazi occupation of Norway in 1940.  Ironically, while the Nazis denounced his art as "degenerate", many of his paintings were confiscated and some of his great works (including The Scream) had to be kept hidden.  When Munch died in 1944, he received a state funeral (organized by the Nazis which gave him an unfair reputation as a collaborator).  

Today, many of Edvard Munch's paintings still invoke themes of life, love, angst, death and depression.  He probably wouldn't have had it any other way.


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