Steffen Kverneland‘s Munch is an enveloping experience. Enveloping in the same way that a brick round the back of the head is an enveloping experience. The latest edition in SelfMadeHero’s Art Masters series, an ongoing collection of biographies on famous artists, this near-300 page slab of smothering, full throttle art is an incredibly raw read.
Compared to the bulk of biographies we’ve reviewed from SelfMadeHero in the past, Munch, the story of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, is a refreshing blast. I’ve found SelfMadeHero’s biographies to be admittedly hit-and-miss. We recently reviewed Agatha, a biography on the life of the famous Poirot author. It’s a lovely thing to behold and to look at, but there were moments, more often than not, where I felt its pace could have been a lot tighter. It wasn’t lazy, but a firmer grip on how it progressed from depicting one era of Agatha’s life to the next could have certainly helped. Similarly, the Sigmund Freud biography Hysteria paints a solid picture of the neurologist’s career, but it did so via dispensing with hooky story-telling. So much of Hysteria is fixated on drawing out specific, monumental moments in Freud’s life that a coherent story isn’t the order of the day.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have An Olympic Dream the biography of 2012 London Olympics hopeful Samia Yusuf Omar, who tragically died whilst travelling by sea as a refugee to reach London from Libya. Throughout that novel, Reinhard Kleist wastes no time in delivering emotional punch after punch, backed by some extremely intense writing and understated artwork.
Munch follows a similar pattern to An Olympic Dream, specifically the punch-after-punch technique. The main different here is that Kverneland isn’t too concerned with getting a heartfelt impact out of his punches – it’s as if he punches for the sake of the punch, which in Munch’s case is no bad thing at all.
As we open Munch‘s cover, we tumble down a rabbit hole that soon evolves into something reflecting a bad acid trip. God knows you’re probably in need of chemical sustenance in order to keep up with this book.
In terms of structure and artwork, Kverneland throws the rule book out of the window and replaces it with Munch. We swerve through cherry-picked moments of Munch’s life and career, narrated by Kverneland himself, with a little help from Norwegien comics writer and artist Lars Fiske. In the beginning, the duo speculate over Munch’s career, drawing forth seemingly subjective conclusions on his existence, which proceed to fill the novel. When writing biographies, that most objective of tasks, this could be seen as taking the greatest of liberties. However, as mentioned, there are no rules here, and there’s so much to enjoy.
Munch may start to make a bit more sense when you realise Kverneland is replicating the riveting, psychological themes of Munch’s art. This was the guy who painted “The Scream” after all. And when reading Munch, it becomes readily obvious that there’s actually no ‘attempting’ here, there’s pure success.
Munch‘s artwork is indescribable (so much of this review!). Kverneland takes colour, shadow, and caricature, sprinkles a tad of those chemical substances I mentioned earlier, stirs the mixture for a while, then dumps a whole load more chemical substances in – because why bother doing things halfheartedly?
The result is a toxic blast of deeply original graphic literature. Munch may not aim to be the most definitive biography of the artist, but I’d argue it’s the most entertaining. By the time you reach the last page, those initial feelings of bad acid trips have melted away, and you’re left feeling like you’re about to step out of a really weird, but good dream. That’s Munch – a really good dream.
Have you read Munch? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments section or send us a Tweet!