The art of emotion and individual experience

Edward Munch’s work in the perspective of cognitive psychology

The Munch’s paintings used in the module are versatile and equivocal artworks allowing multiple depiction, interpretation, description, and meaning of human emotions and connections to emerge and intersect. The paintings themselves in our context are used to help young people to visualise human emotions and connections, in order to address emotions of detachment, frustration, anxiety, depression, love, loneliness. Whereas in this context non-formal education and participatory approach emphasise the experiences and active participation of young people in exploring their own emotions and connections with others. Our methodology is based on active listening and experiential learning; valuing a meaningful participation of the participants present at workshops; what they see and how they interpret and describe the paintings; how they relate to them; to propose new contemporary narratives from Munch’s modern artworks.

As part of this participatory approach, we recommend creating an emotional safe place, a space of trust, diversity, and inclusion for sharing lived experiences and exchanging, a non-judgmental space. The workshops use a collection of Munch works of art with questions designed to provoke discussion and identify how young people address issues related to human emotions and connections. But to understand why this approach is being used, we then need to look back in time to understand who Munch was, and his approach to human emotions and human connections. Edvard Munch is one of Modernism’s most significant artists. His tenacious experimentation within painting, graphic art, drawing, sculpture, and photo has given him a unique position in Norwegian as well as international art history. Born on 12th December 1863, as a child, he was sick and close to death more than once. Having to stay in bed for whole winters, he was unable to attend school and was taught at home instead. But his poor health also gave him the freedom to pursue his passion, drawing. At 17 years old he wrote in his diary: “It is my decision now to become a painter.” He was active throughout more than sixty years; from the time he made his debut in the 1880s, right up to his death in 1944. But how can Munch artworks help us to examine our emotions, behaviours, attitudes, and human connections?

Munch and history of racism and slavery

In 2021, the Munch Museum in Oslo through “Call me by my name exhibition” highlighted a very important question: Can Edvard Munch’s paintings of Sultan Abdul Karem help us to understand our own racial prejudices? In this first ever exhibition, the museum turned its focus toward historical ideas about ethnicity and race to better address the role of the museum itself in light of present-day questions about racial discrimination, racism, identity, and diversity. One of the paintings in the museum’s collection has long been known by the title “Negro with Green Scarf”. The painting is a portrait of a man of African origin, whom Edvard Munch met while visiting Hagen Beck’s Circus, a German touring circus that came to Oslo in 1916. Munch painted several pictures of this man, who at the circus, went by the name of Sultan Abdul Karem. When Munch exhibited the portraits, however, Karem’s name did not appear. Instead, the pictures were given titles that today are perceived as racist and discriminatory. The museum is now in the process of revising these titles. In “Call me by my name exhibition” the museum displayed all of Munch’s paintings of Sultan Abdul Karem for the first time. Placing these paintings in their historical context, allowed the public to see them as racially prejudiced towards racial minorities, particularly Africans at that time. At the same time, they did help the public to identify links to the everyday racism and discrimination against sexual, racial and gender minorities that we see in our own time. When examining how Munch saw Karem, perhaps we may also recognise ourselves, our behaviours, attitudes, our own prejudices about people who are different from us.

On the other hand, Edvard Munch’s painting Cleopatra and the Slave 1916 can be somehow understood as a reflection on the history of slavery and this history’s significance for the notion of race. In the painting, Edvard Munch depicts an athletic male of African origin next to a fair-skinned, scantily dressed woman. When considered as a motif, the title Cleopatra and the Slave first brings to mind Cleopatra VII Philopator and the complex history of slavery in Ancient Egypt. It is reasonable to interpret the slave figure in the painting as one of Egypt’s many Nubian prisoners of war, East Africans from the region that today generally coincides with Sudan. Nubian prisoners of war were largely enslaved in the courts of the Pharaohs. Cleopatra is considered to be the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She was queen of the Greek Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt from the years 323 to 30 BC. In Munch’s painting, she is represented as a white Nordic woman in modern attire, rather than as a more historically correct depiction of her as a Macedonian. This representation calls to mind the history of modern slavery as it developed from the 18th century onward. But unlike modern slavery, the slavery of Ancient Egypt was not founded on the basis of ethnicity or notions of race. The labouring figures in the painting’s background may be understood in view of this fact. With their loincloths, the uniform stick figures are reminiscent of the figures one finds in Ancient Egyptian art. One of the figures is black, while the others are white. The motif can thus give rise to reflections around notions about race and associations with the history of slavery.

Munch and human emotions and connections

Several of Edvard Munch’s paintings allow us to empathize with different aspects of being alone. He explores melancholy loneliness, but also solitude as a spur for productivity. Perhaps this Edvard Munch’s view of solitude and isolation is exactly what we need now in order to process the isolation that our society has experienced. During the pandemic, which led to major lockdowns from March of 2020 and went on for almost two years, many of us have experienced what it is like to be alone, indoors, and restricted from modern time socialisation. Being isolated from other people; friends, colleagues, or classmates, was very painful and unpleasant, especially for young people. The pandemic showed how much we need other people for emotional closeness, human connections, and in our society, we depend on each other to access different services that make society functions better. However, the pandemic showed that people can easily adapt to new changes, like when people were able to isolate themselves voluntarily; when people experience a desire from time to time to think in private, or when people decide to practise mindfulness over the challenges of everyday life.

Indeed, the ability to create art, and being creative for that matter in terms of having important ideas and making them work has always been associated with people who have the capacity to look for answers within their inner mental or emotional worlds. In Melancholy (1901), one of the paintings on display in Edvard Munch’s Infinite Collection, the painting depicts a young woman sitting indoors. The room appears bright and warm, though the woman has a heavy blanket wrapped around her body. The potted plant on the table is thriving and flowering but the woman at the table seems to be doing the opposite. She appears not to be present, in the here-now. Her hands lie flaccidly on her lap, her mouth is closed, her eyes are unfocused, and she gazes, stares emptily into the room: her whole body exudes passivity. She sits in a corner showing no interest either in the world outside, which can be glimpsed through the window or in the potted plant on the table. Although she may be present physically, mentally; it seems like she is in a completely different place. It seems difficult to form a connection with her, rather we are left with a feeling of a loneliness emotion. Ideally, we think of our room, our homes as safe places. In Melancholy Edvard Munch challenges this association, imbues the room with psychological dimensions that express the emotions we experience in our rooms, our homes, whether they are emotions of uncertainty, frustration, humiliation, anxiety, fear, depression, pain, loneliness, or isolation.

Munch and the story of love, pain, and death

Edvard Munch’s Vampire is another controversial painting. There is something strange, with mixed interpretations about a naked, dominating, active woman embracing a fully dressed man, as it is she who holds the man in her embrace. Looking at unusual composition and dramatic atmosphere adds an ambiguous undertone to the motif. The fact that the title of the painting has been changed is reflection of this ambiguous undertone to the motif. When the painting was exhibited for the first time, it was called Love and Pain, depicting a gentle and loving relationship between two people, a woman kissing a man on the back of his neck. But influenced by misogynist ideologies of that period, the painting was seen as depicting a broken man with a biting vampire face on his neck. A representation of the hostility against women at that period, where a woman’s influence on man was associated with decomposition and doom. Vampire was painted in 1893 in Berlin, at about the same time as The Scream and Madonna. Today, the motif is considered one of the absolute highlights of Munch’s career. Vampire exists in several versions, both as paintings, drawings, and prints. The title makes the picture more literary than it needs to be. The idea of the woman as the stronger gender, who manipulates and drains power from the man, was strongly linked to the 1890s, as such thoughts flourished within the artworld. Though if we look at the painting with its original motif “Love and Pain”, it changes our perception, interpretation, meaning of it. It was probably Munch’s friend, a Polish writer and Satanist, who called the motif Vampire. And the title stuck like that. In Munch’s time it was hard to see the red-haired woman with a tender lover as anything but a bloodsucking creature.

On the other hand, to look at Edvard Munch and the story of the death, The Sick Child motif brings about a painting that can allow a viewer to reflect on love, pain, death. The Sick Child 1927 is deeply rooted personal experiences in Edvard Munch’s childhood. He continued to explore this motif throughout his artistic life. The motif of the sick adolescent girl is based on Edvard Munch’s memories of his sister Sophie, who suffered from tuberculosis and died at the age of 15. Back then, Tuberculosis was a constant threat, both in society and in Munch’s family, and there was no cure; his mother died of the disease when Munch was five years old. He tried to express something that was difficult to capture; the tired movement of the eyelids, the lips that seem to whisper, the little gleam of life that remains. There are six painted versions of The Sick Child motif, made over several decades, from the 1880s to the late 1920s. Munch most likely felt that he had not succeeded in covering all the different aspects of his memory of his dying sister in one picture. He thought that the colours in the first version were not vivid enough, too grey, heavy as lead, yet it is undoubtedly here that the sensitively rendered grief resonates most strongly. The composition is the same in all of the paintings, stripped of unnecessary details. The later versions are more colourful and all of them differ slightly; each contributed to enhance Munch’s memory.


The module uses workshop activities to create interactive learning activities based on experiential learning. Under each workshop, there is a painting from the Edvard Munch collection taken from the Munch Museet in Oslo. The provided image should then be used as a handout, it has information about the artist, the painting’s name, and the time and place of creation. Facilitators can use or adapt the workshops to guide the discussion about the presented painting. The module has formulated questions that can open a dialogue and provoke reflection based on artwork presented. The facilitator should seek to facilitate young people to choose and depict elements from the artwork presented that, in their eyes, can be debated, deconstructed, or analysed.

To design the present module, we conducted research at Munch Museum in Oslo, which has an extensive collection of Munch’s art in the form of paintings, print, drawings, photographs, and sculptures. Edvard Munch Infinite Collection takes us on a unique journey through the arts and the mind of Edvard Munch. This exhibition invites us to explore the world of Edvard Munch: his ideas, his processes, and the profound topics on emotions and human connection that occupied him and that still affect us today. Through a wide selection from the museum’s collection, we can experience the richness of Munch’s artistic career and his unrelenting drive to experiment and innovate. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to engage with themes and motifs that Munch explored in his whole life in the form of paintings, graphics, drawing, photography, and sculpture in his own attempts to depict the tales of anxiety, death, love, and loneliness, which we all have in common. Munch never tired of exploring the possibilities of emotions and human connections through art. In the same way, the module invites young people to discover and rediscover Munch paintings as a means to perceive and interact with their emotions, feelings, behaviours from an artistic, non-formal, and participatory methodological approach.


  • Dolnick, Edward (2005). The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Berman, Patricia G., ed. (1986). Edvard Munch: Mirror Reflections. West Palm Beach.
  • Faerna, José María (1995). Munch. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

Authorship of the module and script: Terram Pacis

Our encounters with art – a visit to the Museum Munch in Oslo

photo authorship: Beata Duda