“Sickness and insanity were the black angels that guarded my cradle”
Edvard Munch, personal manuscript.
Edvard Munch is one of my painting idols.
Today I continue the Munch stories with “Alpha and Omega”, which I saw a few days ago at the Munch Museum in Oslo. It was a revelation for me to see these pictures.
Alpha and Omega is a fable written by Edvard Munch.
In addition to the text, there is a series of lithographs depicting the story.
It is possible that Munch first created the pictures and then he wrote the text.
As we read in Christie’s website, presenting one of the lithographs for sale, “lithograph, 1908-9, on stiff wove paper, signed in pencil, from the total edition of approximately 80 or 90 impressions”.
At first the title was “The First Human Beings”, but then Munch changes it to “Alpha and Omega”.
Before I present the fable itself, I would like to give some background relevant to Munch’s life at the time of writting and illustrating the fable.
In the period 1908 – 1909, Munch suffered a psychotic incident. He was 46 years old at the time.
In the fall of 1908, Munch collapsed in Copenhagen. Hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side, he was persuaded by his old roommate from the Saint-Cloud apartment, Emanuel Goldstein, to check himself into Dr. Jacobson’s clinic at Frederiksberg in Copenhagen for detoxification. It was during his stay there, 1908–09, that he created Alpha and Omega.
The sketch shown above, drafted by Munch himself, reads:
“Professor Jacobsen is electrifying the famous painter Munch, and is bringing a positive masculine force and a negative feminine force to his fragile brain.”
Munch made progress following his treatment, which included “tobacco-free cigars, alcohol-free drinks, and poison-free women.”
Let us now go back to Alpha and Omega.
Alpha is the first man and Omega is the first woman.
They live on an island and fall in love.
ALPHA AND OMEGA were the first Humans
on the Island. Alpha lay in the Grass and slept
and dreamed, Omega approached him, looked at
him and became curious. Omega broke off a
Fern branch and tickled him, so he awoke.
Alpha loved Omega; they sat in the Evenings
leaning into one another and gazing at the golden
pillar of the Moon, which swayed and rocked in
the Ocean surrounding the Island.
The couple lives a paradiselike existence, surrounded by animals and plants.
Omega becomes bored and allows herself to be seduced first by the Serpent, and then in turn by the Bear, the Poet Hyena, the Tiger and the Donkey, in addition to the Pig and other animals.
After a time she leaves the island on the back of a Doe and travels across the ocean to “the light green Land, that lay beneath the Moon”. Stenersen, quoted by Steinberg and Weiss, notes that the tubelike reflection of the moon on the water resembles the artist’s characteristic drawing of male genitalia. “Thus it appears that the image of the full moon (breast – penis) was to Munch a protection against castration anxiety.
Alpha remains on the island together with Omega’s offspring – a whole new generation of children – “little Pigs, little Serpents, little Monkeys and little Predatory animals and other Human Bastards”.
One day Omega returns. Suddenly the landscape turns to blood and Alpha closes his ears to the “cries of nature”. He then drowns Omega. According to Steinberg and Weiss, the bloody landscape represents the shocking sight of Munch’s dying mother, which could not be avoided or shut out. Munch experienced his mother’s death at the age of five.
He is in turn torn asunder by her small mixed offspring, who finally take over the island.
It is a story of an archetypal man and woman as they progress from love and passion, to jealousy and melancholy, to anxiety and death.