The principle of alternate emphasis


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from the foyer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’m a bit depressed — it’s the wet umbrellas flooding in from 53rd Street, and the Edvard Munch retro, The Modern Life of the Soul, that I’ve just been upstairs to see.


“Self-portrait with Cigarette”
oil painting
by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, International enigma and Norway’s favourite son, spent a great deal of his life checking in and out of clinics. His problems were alcoholism, a variety of health issues and, yep, depression. Inheriting the genes of mental instability, he grew up in a religious family that he perceived to be loaded with ignorance and guilt. In youth, he witnessed the deaths of his mother, father and sister. A fellow artist noted, “his religion is despair.”

Munch attended various art schools in Kristiania (now Oslo) and showed modest ability in academic art. His early works were deemed “unfinished” by teachers and critics. Tellingly, Munch admired the Swiss painter Arnold Bocklin — a highly competent symbolist who painted mysterious landscapes and the dark side of the human soul.

Recognizing early on that he was a weak draftsman with a faulty sense of form and a poor grasp of colour, Munch turned to the principle of alternate emphasis. Misery was central to his life and was to become the central message of his art. Scholarships abroad and state support followed. Simplified forms, compositional isolation and incomplete faces allowed him to focus on the pure emotions of melancholy, loneliness, hysteria, sickness, despair, grief and death. Skulls, blood and Bocklinesque entanglement depicted the pointlessness of lust and life. His early romances and skirmishes in free love led only to anxiety. Munch lived a long, unsettled life and never married. It’s telling that his best known painting, The Scream, exhibited widely and well stolen, contains the words “could only have been painted by a madman” penciled on it. Munch never protested this defacement — though he could easily have had it removed. While embarrassed by his shortcomings, Munch allowed the graffiti to stand — it was part of his alternate emphasis.

In this MOMA show you can’t miss the influences of Gauguin, Whistler and the Impressionists. “Depressing and moving,” I heard someone say.

Best regards,


PS: “I have been given a unique role to play on this earth: given to me by a life filled with sickness, ill-starred circumstances and my profession as an artist. It is a life that contains nothing that resembles happiness, and moreover does not even desire happiness.” (Edvard Munch)

Esoterica: Nevertheless, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) did have some happiness. He relished awards and applause from many nations. He was often written up and lauded by critics. Even negative press gave him amusement. Financial success, together with purifying bouts in health-camps, helped to make him right with the world. His friends included the glitterati — Ibsen, Strindberg, Gauguin — and loads of Royalty. Munch loved literature. One of his favourites was Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”


Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Images courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art


“The Dance of Life”
oil on canvas, 1899-1900


oil on canvas, 1885


oil on canvas, 1891


“Girls on the Pier”
oil on canvas, 1901







“Towards the Forest I”
woodcut print, 1897


“On the operating table”
oil on canvas, 1902-03


“Self-portrait in Weimar”
oil on canvas, 1906


“Self-portrait by the Window”
oil on canvas, 1940







Munch stereotyped and pigeonholed
by Decker Walker, Stanford, CA, USA

A visit to the Munch museum in Oslo or, better, to the Bergen museum would convince anyone that the dark images that made Munch famous were merely a period in his long artistic life. Later in life he painted many large, colourful canvases — portraits, self-portraits, scenes of Norwegian life — strikingly beautiful works with impressionistic colour and brushwork and expressionistic flowing compositions that express nuanced, life-affirming, not dreary, responses to life. In my opinion society’s thirst for his early and strikingly vehement expressions of his youthful struggles has led to his reputation as a depressed maniac and consequently to devaluing his talent and impressive life’s work. We’ve stereotyped and pigeonholed this great artist.


Munch overcame lack of training
by Linda Blondheim


“Econfina River”
oil painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Linda Blondheim

I’ve always been a big fan of Munch — and of theGerman Expressionists. The raw emotion in that dark work speaks to me. Interesting in that he was able to overcome his lack of academic training and talent to become a powerful painter. I believe society may sometimes put too much importance on classical training as a standard for good work. I was not one of the lucky ones with a lot of inborn talent. I had to work very hard for many years to become a proficient painter. I believe the drive and will of desire is far more important than natural talent as an artist.


Soul on canvas
by Donna Tatton, Port Elgin, ON, Canada

I, too, have seen the Munch works at MOMA just a few weeks ago. Yes, they are depressing and dark, but that is the entire point. Munch was projecting his inner turmoil outwardly to express a depressing world. He was bad at drawing, and I could paint better than that in kindergarten, but he was phenomenal at expressing his darkness of soul. I’d be a much better painter if I could get my soul on canvas as Munch has.


Internal artist cries out
by Frances Krsinich, Paekakarik, New Zealand


“Distorted Finance Minster”
pencil drawing
by Frances Krsinich

I wonder whether anxiety and/or depression are a common response to not actualising one’s creativity — it seems to be the case with me, anyway — art as therapy, expression, outlet, etc. Anxiety, or mental unease can be seen as the crying out of the internal artist: ‘Let me out! let me speak!’






Confusing issues of religion
by Gordie Hayduk, Kailua, HI, USA

I was musing about your Edvard Munch reference quote: “A fellow artist noted, ‘his religion is despair.’ ” Maybe that’s ass-backwards — it seems more realistic to say, “his despair is his religion.” Indeed, if he “grew up in a religious family that he perceived to be loaded with ignorance and guilt,” it is especially true. Believing in God doesn’t require a connection to religion, as perhaps his family demanded. Confusing issues for someone seeking a higher understanding, as many artists do.


Non-verbal communication
by Cathie Harrison, Atlanta, GA, USA

I get such affirmation from this correspondence. I immediately envisioned you in the lobby and understood that the images you had just seen had affected you in a predictably human way. To me this is part of the significance of visual art, to communicate non-verbally something that was in the mind of the artist. I also could not help contrasting Munch with Van Gogh. He clearly had plenty to be depressed about, but his paintings are often joyful and full of hope for a better day. Reading his Letters to Theo you can’t help but admire his tenacity. Although many see “insanity” in his paintings, he saw himself as most sane and positive when painting. It was his salvation and deliverance from depression.


Painting for your life
by Nancy Hess Hummer, Danville, PA, USA

Since glimpsing the work of Munch in Oslo last year and more recently at MOMA, I learned he had much more to celebrate than The Scream. Also he was embraced and honoured by his community as an artist. Vigeland Sculpture Park Museum is another example of how Oslo lifts its own up. Neither Munch nor Vigeland were the sort of artists to excite the mainstream, but Oslo recognized what they had and supported them with public and private funds. But the MOMA experience gave me a greater appreciation for what it means to paint for your life. I contemplated his work in the context of American angst and came away with a heavier load to sort through. I think the crowds of people also affected me (in Oslo there were no others in the room with me while I viewed). My awareness was one of collective response and I was picking up vibes from others, through murmurs, postural responses and that awkward feeling of claiming space. I was glad to leave the exhibit and felt my exhilaration deflated.


Life sucked out of images
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada


“Ellis twins – Natasha, Deneica”
oil diptych, 30 x 15 inches
by Gabriella Morrison

Your implication is that if one’s work is weak in form, draftsmanship and colour use, then one could easily plead to having adhered to this mysterious “principle of alternate emphasis,” which may then be used as a cop-out, or to mystify the ignorant. By the same token, the paintings of Francis Bacon might, to the uninitiated, seem to lack in draftsmanship, and poor realization of form, but of course not of poor colour because they show a sophisticated and personal use of the same. What a painter chooses to emphasize or simplify, distort and exaggerate has much to do with the intent of the work. Some painters convey much more with deliberate skewing and downplaying of rigorous principles of draftsmanship than many others do with carefully correct and oftentimes deadened forms in which all life and meaning is sucked out of the images.


Artists are blessed with imagination
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada


“Contributing in Tulip Festival”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Mona Youssef

I would have felt extra depressed if Munch had not been able to paint or had not the means to express his feelings while playing with colours. In every dark room, there is always a breeze coming from somewhere and we have to search for it, learn how to use it and just enjoy it. Artists are blessed with their flourishing imaginations, so Munch could have seen the petite light in a larger scale had he really needed it. Yes, life is full of complicated issues, but also is full of delightful ones. We can focus on what we want to see. Sometimes we have to do it ourselves and other times we need a sincere one to take us there. I would feel depressed that Munch could not have both.


Where the heart goes…
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada


“Trillium Chorus”
watercolor painting
by Linda Muttitt

I can only imagine how you felt after viewing Munch’s exhibit because I am feeling somewhat down having read your comments on his exhibit. Interesting exchange. It’s got me thinking… Following a passion to express self through painting does not lead to immediate happiness, just because it’s your passion. Seems like a simplistic comment, but many believe that following where you believe you are ‘meant to go’ will bring the contentment that life has to offer, like a lovely meditative bliss. Reading Munch’s comment just following your writing made me realize that even when I paint beauty, it doesn’t therefore follow that I will be filled with beautiful feelings. That is bound to happen, though, if I am honest and instinctive with my art, in that deep parts of myself will flow through me and out into the painting. It can’t help but happen. It reminds me of a very old Sanskrit writing, “Where the hand goes, the eye follows; where the eye goes the mind follows; where the mind goes, the heart follows, and thus is born expression.” In many ways, painting feels like the reverse for me. Where the heart goes, the mind follows… all the way to the final touch of the brush in my hand. Soul expresses through genuine opening. All bundled up in here, too, is the direction to paint what moves your heart, not what the market predicts will sell. Same old message.


In love with Munch
by Toby Tover-Krein, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA


“Man in Cabbage Field”
oil on canvas, 1916
by Edvard Munch

A few years ago I visited a museum in Oslo. The enclosed painting absolutely floored me… I remember it in the room full of many paintings in dark, sombre tones… this glorious sunlit work just illuminated that side of the room. I totally fell in love with Munch’s work on that day.





Artists and biological emotional disorders
by Jayson Phillips

Although most everyone experiences situational depression at some time in their lives, so-called clinical depression or Unipolar Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder (formerly known as Manic-Depression) are biologically produced emotional disorders. A disproportionate number of those who suffer from these disorders are people in the arts such writers, actors, painters, sculptors, etc. A misconception is that those who suffer from one of these disorders are better at their art than their unaffected counterparts. This is not true, of course. Some people find the disorder saps motivation or makes them too inconsistent in their work while others feed off emotions and profit from it. This is not to say that all people who have a genetic tendency for clinical depression are artistic or that one has to have these disorders in order to be artistic. Also, saying that a disproportionate number of the total of those suffering from depressive disorders are artists is not the same as saying most artists have a depressive disorder. But, do those who experience the deepest despair of depression have any insightful artistic advantage over people who have just felt a little “down” from time to time? And here’s the biggest question: “Are artistic people more sensitive to the conditions that bring on depression or Bipolar Disorder, or are people who suffer from these disorders just more likely to go into the arts because of these disorders?”


Steps to perfection
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada

I am very fond of the work of Munch and during my angst period took his palette to be my own. There is much to be said for any emphasis, alternate or otherwise — because over the years, I have heard how important it is to:


Valerie Kent

Make sure you have a focal point.
Create large shapes.
Paint with complementaries.
Be aware of your range of values.
Do not paint symmetrical shapes flanking both sides of your piece.
Paint from the heart. Be free. Express yourself.
Do not point to any of the corners — having objects acting as arrows out of the work.
Make sure you repeat colours within the frame, preferably 3 of each repeated.
Paint outdoors, otherwise the work does not have soul.
Paint what you remember from what you see. Do not paint from viewing.
Do not paint objects — paint the light.
Follow the colours that are popular with designers each season.
Always put houses or living beings in every landscape so people can relate to it.
Spend only 7 minutes on a painting — get in and get out.
Don’t divide your painting in half in any direction — don’t paint something in the centre.

And so many others. My challenge then to all artists is do all of the above, plus all the others we have been told, and taught to do, all together on a painting and be sure that for this particular work of art, your alternate emphasis of deep meaning and deep feeling is then also put into place on your work. It will then be perfect.


Making sense of new life, new art
by Debra Davis, AR, USA


“Love Me”
original painting
by Debra Davis

Reading your letter about Munch and describing his mission in creating art, I pondered about my own mission. In looking back at my work, I can now see the message. My husband was killed 5 months ago, and I haven’t created anything new yet. I have continued to read your letters, and today’s message is sending me to my studio. Is there any one else who knows what I know now? I would welcome the correspondence to try to make new sense of my art and my life.






Maggie in My Dreams

watercolour painting
by Patricia Lawton, Coldstream, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes LeslieAnn Butler who wrote, “It seems that one has to be sick, depressed, weird or tortured to be thought of as an outstanding artist. I am happy and don’t dress funny. Is success within my grasp even though I am healthy and well rounded?”

And also Lyn L’Ecuyer Tatla Lake, BC who wrote, “If you’re in New York at the MOMA and you’re depressed, there is something terribly wrong with you. I don’t care what art you’ve just been viewing — you either a) don’t appreciate your life, or b) you actually live in N.Y.”

And also Adan Lerma who wrote, “On first view of Despair, if I hadn’t then read the title, I would have probably kept my impression of the sun rising on hopefulness of beautiful blues in the image. Now I’m depressed.”

And also Margie Hunter Hoffman who wrote, “I have never known anyone who could write as much and as often as you do and who does so in such a consistent and intelligent manner. I am drawn into your prose time and time again.”

And also Ian Grant who wrote, “Edward Munch, Norway’s favourite son? I’m not a betting man, Robert, but I would put Edward Grieg ahead in that category by more than a nose.”




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