The troubled and turbulent mind of Edvard Munch has created many paintings that, in parts, can show the chaos that roared inside his imagination. ‘The Scream’ is a popular example, but other paintings, including ‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ fit the bill as well.
Munch was a man that battled traumas and tragedies from early childhood. But he never ran away from his mind’s stormy state. He embraced it.
Munch suffered from depression and anxiety. But he did not dislike it. To him, it was just like any other quality of the mind. He stated;
“My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
He channeled his troubles and chaos into his paintings, quite literally. But ‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ tells a different type of story.
The Structure of ‘Self-Portrait in Hell’
There is not much going around in the painting ‘Self-Portrait in Hell.’ The painting shows Munch, naked, standing almost in the middle of the canvas looking at the viewers.
There is nothing in the background but just a haze. The strong and thick strokes of the brush create the effect of chaos in the background, but we understand with the colors that Munch is standing in a hellish place.
There is also a large, dark figure behind the artist with no face or body. Even though Munch has not given it any structure, one can understand that this figure is the devil of Hell.
The Scene of the Painting
Even though Munch’s broad brush strokes create an abstract background, the choice of colors makes the viewers imagine where the man is standing.
The use of black color at the very bottom with the shade changing to smokey brown and then red and finally orange and yellow shows the glow of fire, with smoke at the bottom.
Munch is standing naked, and his body is covered with a bright yellow glow from the eternal fire of Hell.
This brilliant depiction of hell shows the viewers that Munch is standing in a place surrounded by fire, without showing the fire at all. The background does not show a campfire or a bonfire, but just a fire. The place where he is standing is on fire.
The Appreciation of Hell
Hell is a place that’s associated with anguish, suffering, pain, melancholy, and everything negative that you can think of. But that’s not what Munch is trying to show us.
Munch’s self-depiction is not that of a meek, troubled, and scared human burning in the fire of hell, scared of the devil. It is quite the opposite.
Munch stands in an elegant posture, more confident than ever. His chest is wide, straight back, and a stern, authoritative expression on his face. Fear or sadness is the last thing you’d expect from this expression.
Munch is like the ruler of this place, a place where he belonged. He stands there in the midst of fire comfortably, confidently, and charismatically too.
This depiction of him shows that while he suffered in the world, where you’d see his meek and sad depictions, in hell, he is the ruler. He has been through the heat of the fire in the world that hell does not burn him.
There is a contrast between him in the world where we live and the underworld of hell. He is scared and alone here, but down there, he is confident and comfortable.
There is a reason why he feels so strong and powerful in hell and it has something to do with the dark figure behind him.
The Dark Figure in ‘Self-Portrait in Hell’
Since there is not much in the background, people have noticed that the black figure behind the artist is not just smoke or darkness, but it does depict something.
And it does. The dark figure behind the man is to depict the demon of hell, the ruler of this fiery place. But that demon is not standing behind the artist. The demon is Edvard Munch!
Munch has placed the dark figure behind him to show that the devil is his shadow; the devil is inside him. This also explains why he is so confident in a place that would make people scream and cry.
Hell is a place, according to this painting, where Munch belongs. He suffers in the world above with his mental afflictions. But in hell, he is able to express the chaos without any resistance.
So he rises from the fire with his shadow casting a dark figure behind. He is the ruler of Hell. He is strong and stands tall in this infernal place. You can see there is no frailness in his body or posture.
Munch is not a helpless victim here. He is the ruler of this dark world; his dark world. That’s what ‘Self-Portrait in Hell’ is trying to show the world.
Munch’s mental conditions had always troubled him. He suffered a lot, but perhaps he understood this world was not for him. And if suffering was such a big part of his life, maybe he’ll be in the place he was supposed to be in.
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About the Painting
Here are all the details about the painting.
- Name: Self-Portrait in Hell
- Artist: Edvard Munch
- Year Painted: 1903
- Period: Expressionism, Symbolism
- Medium: Oil on Canvas
- Size: 32 5/16 × 26 in. (82 × 66 cm)
- Location: Munch/Stenersen