Edvard Munch first described the concept of Frieze of Life in a letter to collector and friend, Johan Rohde, in 1910. Munch used this term to describe the overarching themes of love, loss, anxiety, and death that can be found in many of his works from the 1890s. He considered Angst, Madonna, Vampyr, and The Scream to be significant subjects within the cycle. Munch executed many of these as paintings early in his career while working in Kristiania (Oslo) and Berlin. However, he would return to this imagery throughout his life. Often the artist translated these subjects across multiple mediums in order to capture the exact mood.
On January 22, 1892, Munch famously penned in his diary the narrative of a vision:
“I was walking along a road with two friends. The sun went down – the sky turned a bloody red – and I felt a breath of sadness. I stood still tired unto death – over the blue-black fjord and city lay blood and tongues of fire. My friends continued on – I remained – trembling from fear. I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.”
This infernal vision would provide the basis for one of the most widely recognized images in Western art, The Scream. As a motif, it would also provide the framework for another subject that the artist executed shortly after, Angst. Munch situated both hallucinatory scenes looking out across the fjords, with Kristiania below and a view of the “bloody red” sky streaked with “tongues of fire” above. However, while The Scream shows a single figure in the center of the composition looking out at the viewer, Angst depicts multiple figures on the road. Unlike the expressive gesture of the single figure in The Scream, each ghostly figure in Angst stares blankly at the viewer. The mute expressions of the figures and their direct engagement with the viewer serve to heighten a sense of apprehension. Both images would later find their expression in lithography in addition to these earlier paintings.
In 1895, Munch mounted an exhibition of his Love paintings in Norway. The local audience and highly conservative critics panned the exhibition and rejected his work. However, the French art journal, La Revue Blanche, published a laudatory review of the exhibition and even reproduced the lithographic rendition of The Scream in their December edition that year. Spurred by the positive review and encouragement from patrons, Munch travelled from Kristiania to Paris in February of 1896 hoping to find a more accepting artistic environment.
While Paris did not prove to be more embracing of Munch’s art, he did find several sources of inspiration and opportunity. Most notably, the artist learned about the woodcuts of Paul Gauguin and Felix Vallotton and their experiments with color in printmaking. He also had the opportunity to work with the master printer, Auguste Clot. By this time, Munch had already mastered intaglio techniques and had also recently learned to create and transfer lithographic images in Berlin. At the encouragement of one his patrons and ardent supporters, Julius Meier-Graefe, the Parisian dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, invited Munch to contribute to the forthcoming first album of Les Peintres-Gravures. For the album, Munch selected Angst to be re-envisioned as a lithograph in colors.
As with the lithograph of The Scream, Munch pared the image down to its essential forms, which suggests the influence of the Art Nouveau movement on the artist’s work. The 1894 painting’s crimson “tongues of fire” were replaced with a sinuous, linearly patterned sky. Each supple line demonstrates the artist’s careful stroke of tusche on the plate to fill out the sky. In contrast to The Scream’s monochromatic rendering, however, Munch drew on Clot’s expertise and printed the sky in blood red. The somber procession of figures on the road still stand as solid black vertical forms against the horizontal background. As a composition, Munch demonstrates his mastery of line and lithography as well as color and paint.