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Michael F. Marmor
In 1930, when Munch was 66 years old, an intraocular haemorrhage in his right eye affected his sight. For several months, with methodical precision, he attempted to render on paper what he saw through his affected eye as his condition changed. Inside the eye, the blood had coagulated into shapes, spots and smudges which were superimposed upon his normal vision. To him, some looked like birds, others like concentric circles. A professor of ophthalmology, who has studied the artist’s works and his eye condition, explores how the sketches and watercolours of these ‘visions’ reflect a remarkable period of Munch’s output late in life.
The exact nature of Munch’s haemorrhage is not known. However, we do know that
he consulted Professor Johan Raeder (1889–1956), who was one of the most eminent
ophthalmologists in Norway. Although no office records are available, Raeder
referred to the artist’s illness in some later correspondence:
Raeder prescribed isolation and rest, and gave his patient the following note to
ward off potential visitors:
The ophthalmologist’s correspondence shows that the artist had a similar
haemorrhage some years later in his left eye:
This strongly suggests Munch may
have had an underlying systemic disease that predisposed him to ocular
haemorrhage. However, there is no documentary evidence to identify such an
illness, and the second haemorrhage may not have bothered him visually since it
was in his ‘bad’ eye. We know that he returned to painting, photography and
correspondence after his 1930 haemorrhage, but Raeder may have been aware of
some residual damage or been worried about recurrence.
Munch drew several types of images during his convalescence. A recurrent one is a set of concentric circles, often vividly coloured, which resemble the aura that one sees around bright lights on a foggy day. It is possible that these represent a view through his resolving haemorrhage as he looked towards an electric light or the sun. He annotated many of his drawings ‘electric light’, ‘sunshine’, etc, to indicate the conditions under which they were made, but did not actually date them. The order of colours varies, so they don’t appear to be illustrating a rainbow effect, which would be constant. Whatever else, they do show that Munch must have been intrigued by the patterns of light and colour that suffused his eye as the haemorrhage slowly cleared.
Other sketches documented the presence of a dense blind spot (scotoma) near the centre of his visual field. In one he even drew an arrow to show his point of fixation near the top of the dark shadow. In other diagrams the shadow was superimposed on sketches of people or a room, appearing in the lower or middle part of the scene. Sometimes it was simply an opaque shape, but in one striking watercolour it became a skull covering the foot of the artist’s bed. In that picture he portrayed himself with a hand covering his left eye, the better to observe the nature of the scotoma on the right.
This configuration is interesting, because Munch is known to have painted
self-portraits using a mirror – in which case a hand over the left eye would
have appeared to be over the right eye in the picture. One may presume that
these sketches during convalescence were made to portray a subject, and were not
mirror portraits. In a particularly poignant sketch, a nude figure is obscured
partially by the irregular scotoma, expressing, it seems, Munch’s frustration as
an artist who cannot see the core of his subject.
As the healing process continued, he described the debris within his eye:
Munch was deeply frightened by the ocular haemorrhage. He feared for his life, as well as his sight. This is evident in the portrait of the artist in bed with the death’s head scotoma, and in a drawing where he himself is portrayed with a skull-like visage. In another drawing his hands are held to his head in the same pose of fear and anguish as the famous subject of 'The Scream'. The ominous bird appeared in a number of sketches, sometimes migrating from its inferior scotomatous position; in one image it was superimposed against a huge luminous sun. Munch was so worried about whether a return to painting would be possible that he spent a great deal of time during his convalescence working with photography, which he thought made fewer demands on his vision. However, by 1931 he was again painting regularly, and the strange images of birds and blind spots disappeared forever from his work.
Munch recovered from his ocular haemorrhage and produced some poignant portraits of himself as an old man, which show the same style and surprising colours of his earlier work.