“My German is in such a poor state”.1 Edvard Munch’s Letters written in German

“I always have so much to recount – and am always chagrined by my hopeless German” (“Immer mochte ich so viel erzahlen – und immer ärgret mich mein unmoglich Deutsch”). Edvard Munch wrote this in an undated letter draft to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (MM N 2653). The confession is symptomatic of Munch's more than 1500 preserved letters and letter drafts in German. It is impossible to know how many drafts have been lost; one can presume that that there were at least as many, since “I tear to pieces 10 letters for each completed one” “ich 10 Briefe zerrisse für ein fertigen” (MM N 2770), “because of all the mistakes” “der Fehler wegen” (MM N 2766). Munch’s letters to gallery owners, museum directors and exhibition curators, printers and collectors and not least to friends, provide repeated evidence of his dissatisfaction with his deficiencies in foreign languages.

Irregular handwriting – rich vocabulary

Munch’s handwriting is irregular. It is often rushed, full of amendments and additions, and can also be ambiguous and sometimes illegible. And – whether for reasons of ignorance or carelessness – it is grammatically slipshod. Munch does not always pay heed to correct verb conjugation, plural endings, the proper definite article, umlaut tildes (these are almost always omitted), nor to punctuation – aside from something that resembles a dash.2

If expressing himself verbally was strenuous even in private correspondence, this meant that business letters represented an additional painstaking, time-consuming, yet necessary strain for the artist – at least if one is to believe what he writes himself. The letters can therefore be perceived as A portrait of the artist as a business man, who, despite his struggles with the language, emerges as a gifted businessman (though he misses having a secretary now and then3), who, from his home, while traveling and during therapeutic treatment, attends to the German art market, delivers paintings to exhibitions, negotiates with printers and organises the loan of paintings.

Stylistically, the language of the letters spans from a formal business German to a poetic language rich in metaphors, for example in letters to his friend Frederick Delius or to his lover Eva Mudocci. Munch’s vocabulary is rich – and disproves his self-deprecating description of how “impossible” his German is (“unmoglich Deutsch”). “It will always be a great pleasure for me to think that the four paintings have been exhibited in Munich at such length, and under such honourable conditions”, writes Munch in a stylistically clear and formal written German (“Es wird mir immer eine grozse Freude sein daran zu denken das die vier Gemälden so lange in München auf diese ehrvolle Weise gezeigt sind” MM N 2636). Tyskens stående uttrykk og talemåter mestrer han perfekt. He masters German idioms and speech flawlessly. “Dear Esteemed Gracious Madame!” (“Liebe und hochverehrte gnadige Frau!” MM N 2766), “I thank You for Your kind missive… With the greatest Esteem” (“Ich danke Ihnen fur Ihre freundliche Mitheilung... Mit grözster Hochachtung” MM N 2534), “I confirm with gratitude the receipt of 6000 kroner…” (“Ich bestatige mit bestem Danke das Empfang von 6000 kr...” MM N 2359), “Until then, Respectfully yours” (“Inzwischen empfehle ich mich hochachtungsvoll” MM N 2643) – it is not an orally inspired German we read here, but a well-developed, sophisticated written language (which Munch occasionally uses according to the building block principle.)

If one can measure how well someone has mastered a language by looking at the writing, Munch proves – despite all of the grammatical and orthographic challenges – to be capable of adapting his language to different needs. His personal letters demonstrate his knowledge of spirited colloquialisms: to Karl Wieck he writes, “Well, I’ll be damned, that was quite a story” (“Donnerwetter dasz ist eine tolle Geschichte” MM N 2544), and to his friend, the painter Albert Kollmann: “In any case, the swine have not managed to do away with me” (“Die Schweine haben mich nicht umbringen konnen – jedensfalls” MM N 3144). He repeatedly borrows expressions from spoken German, such as “kriegte” (got) (instead of “bekam”), “giebts” (there) (instead of “gibt es”), “was” (something) (instead of “etwas”) or “riesig gern” (great pleasure).

Letters to his artist friends, such as Delius and Kollmann, are particularly poetic: “Tell me a little about the city with the thousand human rays.” (“Erzahlen Sie mir ein Bischen aus der Stadt mit die tausende Menschenstrahlen” MM N 3175) and “The hostile Spirits no longer hover in the air – they have taken on human shapes and threaten me – but all is well”, (MM N 3176). Munch writes to his British lover Eva Mudocci in German, a foreign language for both of them: “Dear Eva! I feel that our souls have opened themselves to each other – we can come even closer to one another and peer into the dark” (“Liebe Eva! Ich glaube unsere Seelen offnen sich fur einander – wir konnen noch naher kommen und in der Dunkelheit einkucken – wir sind wahr gegeneinander” MM N 2367). “One day I shall bathe my ailing soul in your music – it will do me good” (“Einmal werde ich mein kranke Seele in Dein Musik mir baden – es wird mich wohl thun” MM N 2382).4 The rich imagery and expressive force of his writing bear witness to linguistic skills that are not hindered by insufficient orthography or grammar.

Norwegian language influence

Munch’s Norwegian language background is clearly evident in the German letters. Munch, who reads and writes in German even when he is outside of German language territory,5 remains closely tied to his mother tongue, at least when it comes to written expressions. Case endings, verb conjugations and modes of expression are not only borrowed, but are often taken directly from Norwegian: There is mention of “Maleren” (the painter), “Kunstleren” (the artist), “Verlegeren” (the publisher) and “Besitzeren” (proprietor), of a “Skitse” (sketch) (German: Skizze) and a “Ramme” (frame) (German: Rahmen); Munch “nimmt eine Bestimmung” (made a decision) (= Norwegian: ta en avgjørelse; German: trifft eine Entscheidung), he is “stark schadet” (deeply wounded) (= Norwegian: sterkt skadet; German: stark geschadet/beschädigt), his money does not “strecken” (suffice) (= Norwegian: strekke; German: reichen), his “Humor ist nicht sehr gut” (his mood is not good) (= Norwegian: humor; German: Laune), he “argret” (is annoyed) (= Norwegian: ergre; German: ärgern), he has “Umkosten” (expenses) (= Norwegian: omkostninger; German: Unkosten), something “wird sich ordnen” (will turn out well) (= Norwegian : ordne seg; German: sich regeln, in Ordnung kommen); he “leste” (read) (= Norwegian: leste; German: las), “denkte” (thought) (= Norwegian: tenkte; German: dachte) and has “aufgeklingelt” (rung the bell) (= Norwegian: ringe på; German: klingeln/anrufen). It might therefore be useful for a German reader to keep in mind this “Norwegianisation” of German when the language in the letters appears blatantly incorrect.6 Those with knowledge of both languages can easily identify this tendency. The same applies to sentence structure, where Munch often follows Norwegian rules: “Ich habe so viel zu thun das es ist ganz unmoglich” (“I have so much to do that it is totally impossible”) (MM N 3214) This is an example of a typical dilemma for those who have learned German as a foreign language, i.e. remembering that one must place the verb (here: ist) at the end of a sentence (among other things in subordinate clauses) as opposed to other European languages. The similarity between the two Germanic languages, Norwegian and German, deceive Munch into being careless with the definite form; yet it seldom results in distorting the meaning, and it is only occasionally that a purely Norwegian word sneaks its way into the text (jeg [I] = ich, jo [yes] = ja, og [and] = und, bil [car] = Auto).

Distinctive and productive

“I am very poor at describing things (writer of letters) and especially in a foreign language” (“Ich bin ja ein sehr schlechte Briefschreiber und besonders in fremder Sprachen” MM N 2550) – “I will never learn to write in German” (“Ich lerne nie Deutsch zu schreiben” MM N 2359) – Dissatisfaction with his own grasp of the language, which he perceived as lacking, followed Munch throughout his entire life. This dissatisfaction, but perhaps also his lack of ambition to improve, could have been due to scepticism towards the genre of letter writing as a matter of principle. “In a letter”, says Munch, “one can open oneself only to a degree” (“in ein Brief nur theilweisz sich geben” (MM N 2380). Despite this there are more than 1500 documents containing German letters that were penned during a period of ca. 50 years. The language is admittedly full of grammatical and orthographic mistakes, yet it is expressive, distinctive and exceedingly rich in imagery. Whoever reads the letters, will gain insight into a poetic written universe, where language – including foreign languages – is an integral part of the artist’s mode of expression.


1 “So schlecht geht es mit den Deutsch” from MM N 2770. Letter draft

2 Regarding Munch’s German language instruction see also, Christian Janss: “Edvard Munch’s German Letters”, in eMunch – Text and Image. Exhibition catalogue, Munch Museum, Oslo 2011

3 MM N 2747

4 For information regarding Munch’s letters to Eva Mudocci see also Åshild Haugsland: “...this chaos of letters I have collected...”, in eMunch – Text and Image. Exhibition catalogue, Munch Museum, Oslo 2011

5 Munch subscribed to several German newspapers and periodicals. In his letters he mentions the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt and the periodicals Kunst & Künstler, Kunst der Gegenwart and Zukunft.

6 Munch appears the same in French. See Henninge M. Solberg: “Edvard Munch and the French Language”, in eMunch – Text and Image. Exhibition catalogue, Munch Museum, Oslo 2011