It was the year Strindberg died. Edvard Munch was in his garden. Here were apple trees, bearing their rosy fruit in the brief Nordic summer. Tall-stalked flowers stood about where the painter had not trampled them down. The distant fence was propped up with unpainted planks.
All this could be seen, or half-seen. Munch’s left eye had burst and he feared oncoming blindness. He had executed paintings of the sun, the great golden sun, the blessed sun, father of us all. Always wished for. Sometimes actual.
He was enough to paint. Jacobs an enlightened nerve doctor had diminished his alcoholism. He was now dealing with six large canvases, rapidly painted and slowly brought outside to be hung, to weather, to- in a word- to mature. Some paint would fall off when the September frosts came.
Painting was all. His days bedazzled by the beauty of women’s bodies were over, closed like a sacred book. Yet of a night he often remembered- what was her name? Was it Millie? A married woman, yet she had seduced him. They had laid together among tall silver trees.
At one time they had fornicated where an ancient church stood, with pagan mounds nearby, as if equivalents of virtue and sin had been made for his contemplation.
And trees and sun- did they not prompt desire, lust? Empty bottles lay in a ditch, partly hidden by long grass. Oh yes, with Millie. Fickle and naughty. What a bad world they lived in. Sex itself, its joyous relief that quickly fades, built up remorse in Munch’s brain , and a pervasive melancholia.
Well, well, painting remained. The painting of things extraordinary. The sun bursting through the verticals of his copse. The dream life of the tubes of paint, squeezing their orgasms on to the palette. ‘Fool to think like that…’
What mattered was hanging these new canvases to mature outside They had to live a little to be fully alive.
In his late forties, alcoholism and depression had driven Munch to seek medical care. A Jewish doctor, Jacobs, had diagnosed dementia paralytica. Jacobs had walked with Munch through the city streets.
“The life of a man,” he said, is invariably marred by disappointments.” And with a sly glance at his patient added, “At least you have the consolation of being a great artists. That’s better than any bottle of beer… Just remember that.”
Munch did remember those words, and remembered them now as he endeavoured to hang his pictures like washing on the line. Was not being a great artist- if that was the case- an extra burden to drag through life?
His troublesome thoughts went to his father, now dead. He recalled being on the Stockholm ferry. There stood his old dad, on the quayside, not waving a bent old man wearing his best suit, in which to see his son off. Now he was himself old. ‘The moving finger writes And having writ, moves on…’ Some old poem, half-remembered.”
At least some paintings would remain when he had gone. He rested his back against the wall of his house, to think again of August Strindberg. Did actors still perform ‘The Ghost Sonata’?, he wondered. Fashions came and went. Much like people. As sure as nightfall.
How little we would value the Sun if there was no such thing as night…
He lifted another canvas from the grass and pegged it to the line with the rough wooden pegs his occasional gardener had made.
What had that old feller said, “Some of these paintings aren’t at all bad. You’ll ruin them for sure, sticking them out here in the wind and the rain.”
What had he said in reply? ‘They’re mine, Jak. I can do what I like with them.”
Now alone, he thought with a sigh that it was simply something in reply? ‘They’re mine, Jak. I can do what I like with them.”
Now alone, he thought with a sigh that it was simply something he did. Pegging them out. Survive or die…
A woman’s voice called from beyond the fence. That would be Harriet, who, owing him money, came to cook a meal for him now and then.
He did not answer. The canvas he was holding dropped back on the grass.
He stood against the wall of his house, hands behind his back. He felt the rough brick against his palms.
He made no reply.