Peri-Natal Themes of Death & Dying
In the Art of Edvard Munch

by John A. Speyrer
The thesis of this article is that although Edvard Munch had an unhappy childhood, the real source of his psychopathology and psychosomatic maladies lay in his traumatic birth which was revealed in his early art. Like many, I had long been familiar with the painting of Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, (1863 - 1944), entitled The Scream but had not become curious about his other works. When Canadian primal therapist Réal Beaulieu found an additional painting, besides The Scream which to our minds reflected the trauma of birth, I began studying the biography of the artist as well as continuing to search for other of his paintings which reflected a similar theme.

During our birth, most of us undergo traumas which some in the experential psychotherapies may later relate to death and dying in the birth canal. Very few escape the effects of some type of birth trauma. I became intrigued with the possibility that the body memory (hands held against the head) displayed in The Scream might reflect the same early birth trauma which continued as a theme in Munch's art work until his admittance into a mental hospital in Denmark.

Dr. Stanislav Grof in Psychology of the Future has written,

". . . (P)ostnatal psychological traumas, in and of themselves, are not sufficient to account for the development of emotional disorders. This is also true, even to a much greater extent, for psychosomatic symptoms and disorders. . . . . A considerable portion of this energetic charge is perinatal in origin and reflects the fact that the memory of birth has not been adequately processed and continues to exist in the unconscious as an emotionally and physically incomplete gestalt of major importance." -- (pps. 126 -129)
-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page

The Scream

"They will not get it into their heads that these paintings were created in all seriousness and in suffering, that they are the products of sleepless nights, that they have cost me blood and weakened my nerves."
-- Edvard Munch

"You are acquainted with my painting, The Scream? I was at the end of my tether -- completely exhausted. Nature screamed through my veins -- I was falling apart. . . ."
-- Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch is frequently used in advertisements and articles to convey the feeling of anxiety, agitated depression or existential crisis. When one also views the painting as a representation of the physical trauma of birth , it could easily symbolize the battering of the head Munch might have suffered when he was born.

I found two personal websites about headaches in which their creators wrote that this painting was the perfect metaphor for the pain they endured during their cluster-type headache episodes.

In the Journal of Primal Therapy, Winter, 1976, pps. 7-11, Symptom Formation in Neurosis, E. M. Holden, M.D., confirms that the cluster-form of headache is a form of migraine, that is, it has to do with initial vasoconstriction with few symptoms. Suddenly, one experiences severe pain around the eye, the eye orbit and on one side of the cheek. There is also sweating and flushing of the skin with redness and tearing of the eye and a droopy eyelid. He believes that "migraine evolves in relation to physical trauma very early in life, most commonly at birth. A neurotically tight cervix of the mother during delivery could lead to excessive pressure on the infant's head from the bony pelvic outlet" (My underlining). It is also possible to have migraines without there having been any severe direct physical crushing of the head. And of course, both anoxia and crushing can occur at the same time.

The Dead Mother

"Illness, insanity and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life."
-- Edvard Munch

Death was a recurring theme in the life of Edvard Munch. He had five siblings. As a child he had lost a young brother and sister. Another brother died only a few months after he had married. And both of the artist's parents had died early. Munch lived into his eighties and suffered from lifelong chronic anxiety, psychosomatic diseases and alcoholism. According to AP writer, Hanns Neurerbourg, the painter, "10 years before his death said that he was 'born dying."'

"His own work exhibits a fascination with themes assumed to be very modern—alienation, hysteria, loneliness, sexuality. And no painter has more thoroughly explored the experience of death. . . . Victorian views of sexuality, for example, tended to idealize women at the same time the culture was fascinated with the theme of harlotry. Munch's personal vision was deeply affected by this dichotomy. His women possess a somber beauty that transcends the merely formal statements of the period. Their inaccessibility becomes for Munch an occasion for terror." On Being Sideswiped by Edvard Munch by F. Thomas Trotter


"For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder."
-- Edvard Munch

It is reasonable to assume that the feelings of death and despair which might have been present during Munch's own birth would continue to show up again and again in his paintings. In addition to the paintings shown with this article, there were many others with subjects, seemingly expressing the same feeling.

In Ashes, I believe the same traumatic imprint is represented. The work illustrates, not two but at least three examples of the head trauma imprint and the need to assuage or support the battered head. The third example, which is less obvious than the first two, is the rock pressuring the top of the skull in the right lower corner of the painting.

Other rocks, as symbolized skulls of death, can be seen in the lower background of the painting. The dark forest in the background is uninviting and the decaying tree on the left and bottom of Ashes are both symbolic of death and the difficulty the artist had in negotiating the perils of the birth canal.

The body remembers early trauma and assumes certain positions in an attempt to begin its resolution. The hands would automatically attempt to comfort the body area which was involved during one's traumatic birth. The hands can also help recreate the original trauma in a partial memory of the event.

The Vampire

(The angels of death) . . . stood at my side in the evening when I closed my eyes, and intimidated me with death, hell, and eternal damnation. And I would often wake up at night and stare widely into the room: Am I in Hell?"
-- Edvard Munch

The composition of The Vampire by Munch showing head pressure against the vampire's shoulder once again represents an attempt to resolve his birth trauma. The mother as vampiress drains the blood and life energy from the subject and is for Munch also a symbol of his pain-filled and distorted sexuality. And yet . . . the painting was originally entitled, Love and Pain. What is Munch trying to tell us about the precariousness of love and danger? Tranquilized by alcohol, it is still an added dimension to his being schizoid and apart. Does this hearken back to the warnings of his mentally ill physician father who instilled in him the belief that sin was always punished in everlasting Hell? Or does he regard the bloodsucking vampiress of his painting as an incarnated madonna-whore who dredges up unconnected memories of his very beginnings in the womb and during birth?

After his long mental hospital confinement in Denmark, during which he received electro-convulsive treatment (shock therapy), "he gave up the anxiety-laden subject matter so central to his work and began painting everyday subjects with the same vigorous brushwork and expressionistic colors as before. His motives may have been prophylactic. He later claimed to a friend that he had simultaneously given up women and alcohol, though here again irony is not ruled out." - From Symbolism, p. 149, a Taschen art book by Michael Gibson.


"When I cast off on the voyage of my life, I felt like a ship made from old rotten material sent out into a stormy sea by its maker with the words: If you are wrecked it is your own fault and then you will be burnt in the eternal fires of Hell."
-- Edvard Munch

Many of Munch's paintings had different versions. Such it was with Melancholy. Painted with little detail, the main subject in the foreground is supporting or touching his head. "(Munch's). . . art developed and so did his neurosis. He had a particularly difficult time with women whom he pursued relentlessly, but deeply mistrusted. His relationships often turned to hatred and even violence. His most passionate affair ended with the use of a gun and Munch injured his left thumb. . . . Was the token injury symbolic of his traumatic birth injuries? By the time Munch died in 1944 his work was famous and he was wealthy and respected. Munch recognized that without the tragic past and without his mental anguish he would not have achieved genius in art." From an internet article, Edvard Munch: Fear, Illness and Fame By Deena Sherman

Munch's mother was twenty years younger than his psychotic, religious fanatic father. She died of tuberculosis when he was five years old.


"My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Somtimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life . . ."
--Edvard Munch

His depressive earlier years would exacerbate and trigger any birth or pre-birth traumas which he would have experienced. The theme of Golgotha, I believe, portrays the artist as Christ being crucified. Christ's crucifixion has long been a potent symbol representing death in the birth canal, especially for those schizoid neurotics who as children had spent much time during the penetential season of Lent in devotions to the Passion and death of Christ. In the small portion of the two paintings below Golgotha, in the one to the left, it seems obvious that Munch painted himself as the crucified person. The other insert below the painting shows one of Munch's many self-portraits. There is a striking resemblance between the subject of the painting and Munch's self-portrait. I would be most curious to learn whom the witnesses of the crucifixion might represent.

The identification of being one with Christ through his passion and death had been a common theme in the visions of the mystics of the church as well as by those in non-ordinary stages of consciousness as typified during Grofian holotropic breathwork and LSD therapy sessions. (The use of LSD in psychotherapy or for any use became prohibited in the 1960's.)

Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof writes that during such regressive therapies, "We can have visions of Jesus, his torment and humiliation, the Way of the Cross, and crucifixion." Psychology of the Future, p. 48. In The Cosmic Game, he explains that when experiences around birth are ending but before their resolution many envision ". . . the crucifixion, or even actually experience full identification with Jesus' suffering." p. 144.

The Madonna
"I do not paint what I see but what I saw."
-- Edward Munch

quoted in Edvard Munch: The Early Masterpieces, 1988, by Uwe M. Schneede

The Madonna paintings and lithographs are some of the most popular of Munch's art. Its theme was repeated many times. In this work I see Munch's portrayal of his mother as he experienced her during his gestational life and continuing after his birth. She remained to him an inaccessible, disdainful, yet powerfully seductive and desirable object. He is the hopeful but perpetually disappointed fetus where he sits in the lower left frame of the painting. In this version, the pupils of the eyes of Munch, as imploring fetus, are not turned up upwards towards his distant mother as some other versions portray. (Fetal portion to the right is from another version which shows the direction of the gaze of his eyes.)

Even as a fetus, he is shown to have been emotionally distant and, although unwillingly, set apart from his mother. Was this assessment the reason why he portrayed women in his art as aloof, detached and alone? What do the swimming sperm surrounding the mother, represent to Edvard Munch?

By isolating his father's sperm from his mother, the border of art-work emphasizes yet another painful, although extremely early, rejection. Does it mean even at his very beginnings - at his conception - that his father's sperm was only reluctantly accepted by his mother's ovum? Or, might it have been that his father's sperm was only a reluctant contributor at Edvard Munch's conception and ensoulment?

Man and Wife

"From the moment of my birth, the angels of anxiety, worry, and death stood at my side, followed me out when I played, followed me in the sun of springtime and in the glories of summer.
--Edvard Munch

Munch's obsession with women and sexuality was an ever present reality during his life and was a factor in his mental illness, although, not as a cause -- but rather as a trigger to an unawakened issue which readily surfaced during his many affairs and liasons.

In Man and Wife, Munch reveals a deep anguish in the husband due to an unconscious need for withdrawal from intimacy. In bed, after sex, it would be revealed by a turning away from the spouse and falling asleep instantly. Although Munch's relationships with his lovers were bereft of long lasting satisfaction due to the chaos which they triggered in him because of his birth traumas, he nonetheless had a difficult time discontinuing his relationship with them.

Repressed traumas including birth material can become closer to consciousness and surface during sexual intercourse but less so with other psychological intimacies. The attraction/repulsion forces at work in such relationships are common problems with many couples. The amount of intimacy which such relationships need to be fulfilling for some, can be, for other partners overwhelming and discomforting and ultimately too close for continued comfort. Feeling s(mother)ed, typically it is the man who seeks to get away from his spouse. He tries many accomodations, attacks his wife for being "too suffocating." "You're hemming me in"; "I can't breathe," he complains. He can feel the return of less neurotic tension through flight into the arms of still another woman, even though unconscious birth traumas will soon again present themselves for release as soon as his love partner becomes more familiar.

Both partners are searching for someone to work through, with greater intimacy, their early traumatic relationships they had had with their parents. But this brings up feelings and memories of relationship traumas which each had experienced decades earlier. Both want from the other the good mother or father which they had not had and this unworked through material is often the source of the lack of satisfaction of the relationship in the present. [See Panic Attacks, Phobias, and Feelings ]

I suspect that this motivation was present in Edvard Munch's choice of lovers. This constant search for the beloved (which he had lost at age 5) was never a source of satisfaction but usually accompanied with much discord and wranglings.

Death and the Lady

"Why am I not as others are?; Why was there a curse on my cradle?; Why did I come into the world without any choice?; "From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity."
--Edvard Munch

Under Construction

When making love, the intimacy rapidly develops into a ménage à trois for Edvard Munch and for many others of us. The specter of death, the third and most unwelcome partner is never far away as are the shadows of the nursery. These elements begin to intrude between the two lovers until one clamors for escape. In that first death and sexuality tinged experience of the artist's life - his birth, death hovered as a familiar situational partner.

Although temporarily soothened by alcohol, unconscious near death feelings from the birth canal and perhaps from even before, accompanied the artist all of his life, until finally being beaten back by shock therapy.

Under Construction

Also see these related pages on this website:

Return to Psychosomatic Symptoms and the Regressive Psychotherapies section of the PPP

Return to The Primal Psychotherapy Page's Homepage

Return to Birth Trauma Articles Section