How Edward Munch Signaled His Bohemian Rebellion with Cigarettes (1895): A Video Essay

When we think of Edvard Munch, we think of The Scream. Though not explic­it­ly a self-por­trait, that icon­ic 1893 can­vas does, to any­one who’s read up on the painter’s life, look like a plau­si­ble expres­sion of his trou­bled inter­nal state. But “Self-Por­trait with Cig­a­rette made two years lat­er, though less jar­ring, is just as con­cerned with Munch’s per­son­al psy­chol­o­gy and the dark under­side of his iden­ti­ty as The Scream is.” So argues Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his video essay “Edvard Munch: What A Cig­a­rette Means.” Through the artist’s smoke of choice, it seems, we can approach and under­stand the dif­fer­ent time in which he lived.

“At the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry,” Puschak explains, “the cig­a­rette exist­ed at the cen­ter of a lot of dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al forces.” In fact it had­n’t quite caught on, hav­ing yet to over­come its low­er-class image com­pared to cig­ars and pipes. But as with so much that even­tu­al­ly goes main­stream, the cig­a­rette was first wide­ly adopt­ed by bohemi­ans.

Among them Munch and his con­tem­po­raries “found their alter­na­tive to the suf­fo­cat­ing mid­dle-class val­ue sys­tem. They trad­ed in draw­ing rooms for late-night cafés, din­ner par­ties for night­clubs, and cig­ars for cig­a­rettes.” Puschak pulls up a paint­ing by Munch’s men­tor Chris­t­ian Kro­hg show­ing a 21-year-old Munch “light­ing up with his friends and fel­low painters in his stu­dio.”

Even as he inhab­it­ed it, Munch him­self also cap­tured this float­ing world in his art. In one of his etch­ings, “smoke snakes and fills up the atmos­phere of a café, where bohemi­an intel­lec­tu­als of both gen­ders drink and debate art and ideas.” To the social reform­ers of late 19th-cen­tu­ry Nor­way such scenes were anath­e­ma, and “the cig­a­rette was symp­to­matic of soci­ety’s degen­er­a­tion.” These fig­ures thought lit­tle more of Munch’s art, whether the work in ques­tion was a rel­a­tive­ly nat­u­ral­is­tic image like Self-Por­trait with Cig­a­rette or a vio­lent­ly expres­sion­ist one like The Scream. Regard­ed today as exam­ples of high, refined cul­ture, his paint­ings have in some sense lost their edge; but then so has the cig­a­rette, a one­time lib­er­at­ing sym­bol of social and artis­tic rev­o­lu­tion now reduced to a squalid pub­lic-health haz­ard.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free Online

The Life & Work of Edvard Munch, Explored by Pat­ti Smith and Char­lotte Gains­bourg

Edvard Munch’s Famous Paint­ing The Scream Ani­mat­ed to the Sound of Pink Floyd’s Pri­mal Music

Edvard Munch’s The Scream Ani­mat­ed to the Psy­che­del­ic Sounds of Pink Floyd: The Win­ter Ver­sion

30,000 Works of Art by Edvard Munch & Oth­er Artists Put Online by Norway’s Nation­al Muse­um of Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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