Notes on ‘Herr Munch Goes To The Zoo’

Diana Powell

I was supposed to be writing about a shooting. A man and woman, alone in a room; a gun. The gun is fired. ‘So much blood…’

The man was Edvard Munch, painter of ‘The Scream’, one of the world’s most iconic images; the woman, Tulla Larsen, his former lover. And the blood came from Munch’s left hand, where the bullet was lodged in his middle finger, crippling him for life.  But what actually happened in that room remains a mystery. It was this that intrigued me, crying out ‘story!’ I could take those few bare facts, and shape them any way I liked. He did it; she did it. His viewpoint, hers. Both. Why – more than anything else, why? And yet…

…for some reason, I couldn’t find my way into the tale. I kept on changing my mind. I couldn’t find my ‘voice’. In the end, I put the story back into my ‘resting’ drawer, dissatisfied with it and myself.

Like many writers, I have often found inspiration from a particular work of art – a short story arising from a brief viewing in a gallery… sometimes no more than a face in a portrait, a detail of landscape, or simply the colours. But the lives of certain artists also provide a rich source of material, the interplay of art with a turbulent existence being particularly fruitful. So it was with Munch, whose biography I was reading – the shooting was far from being the only dramatic incident in his life. A troubled, tragic childhood was followed by the rejection of his art by his father and the critics, with the fear of consumption, madness and poverty hanging over him. Then came the tempestuous love affair with Tulla. Soon, he was suffering from extreme paranoia (he saw enemies everywhere, particularly amongst Tulla’s friends) and alcoholism – the drink became a way to ease his finger’s pain. And, finally, complete breakdown.

It was this mental and emotional collapse in 1908 that led him to the nerve clinic of Dr Daniel Jacobsen, in a leafy suburb of Copenhagen, not far from the zoo…

Dr. Jacobsen was not a brilliant man, nor an expert practitioner of psychotherapy, and yet the treatment he provided for Munch was surprisingly effective.  Indeed, his stay there became a turning point for the artist, with the turmoil of his earlier years greatly diminishing from then on, and his work becoming more optimistic.

Details of his illness and life in the clinic are woven into the story.  Munch, in his worst moments, had experienced paralysis and hallucinations, seeing a man with a bird’s head, believing a detective was following him, as well as a man with a gun. He heard voices, and couldn’t sleep. Chloral was prescribed, along with healthy eating and herbal baths. Jacobsen also believed in the benefits of fresh air and exercise, introduced gently at first, then building up to an ‘excursion on a fine day, to a pleasant destination’ – a visit to the nearby zoo.

Copenhagen Zoo is one of Europe’s oldest.  Here again true facts are slipped into the narrative.  A sea lion was kept in a bathtub, when the zoo opened (and a turtle in a bucket!). The observation tower did exist (it still does, being one of the tallest wooden structures in the world). But, of course, what happened during those visits  – the heart of the story – is my own fictional interpretation.

It is, on the whole, except for nightmare at the beginning and the content of Munch’s drawings towards the end, which echo each other, a gentle enough tale. Yet I see from my notes (I always make handwritten notes, which include a mixture of research and various tentative storylines) that it was going to be much darker, originally. I intended to make more of the horror of madness.  And blood.  Munch was going to bathe in the blood of animals (as, indeed, some of the patients had to do) and ponder whether it might be the blood of the zoo’s caged inhabitants.

Perhaps I was still clinging to the drama of the shooting incident.  But, as I wrote, it no longer seemed necessary.

Of course, Munch hadn’t let the shooting go, either – or the destructiveness of his relationship with Tulla and her entourage, or any of his many other demons.

And beneficial as Jacobsen’s treatment had been, he knew, in the end, it would be his own art that cured him. He turned his room into a studio, then started gently, with pictures of the animals – a subject he had ignored in the past. He painted the nurses. And Jacobsen, a full-length work, cunningly portraying the doctor’s smugness and arrogance, characteristics I hope I’ve conveyed in the story. Finally, Munch began the lithographic portfolio, accompanied by text, entitled ‘Alpha and Omega.’ This is the artist’s version of the creation myth, Alpha being Adam, and Omega Eve, happy together in their island paradise, until Omega/Eve’s seduction by the serpent, leading, of course, to the Fall – a subject Munch had dealt with several times before.

But the series was also an expression of his feelings about what had happened with Tulla, with Alpha representing Munch, and Omega his former lover. The baying animals are the ‘fiends’, as he referred to his enemies – those who were against him, whether in reality or in his paranoia. The poet/playwright Gunnar Heiberg, who introduced him to Tulla and then became his rival, was particularly hated, and so is drawn as a pig, as he was elsewhere (unless he was represented as a frog… ). And the violence of his love affair, culminating in the shooting, is reflected in the savagery of the story, the jealous bear and tiger destroying each other, Alpha killing Omega and then all the other animals tearing Alpha apart. Yet, in spite of this, Munch declared that ‘a strange feeling of peace came over me as I was working on that series – it was as if all the pain was leaving my body.’ It was, of course, the ultimate catharsis.

Although Jacobsen knew little about art, he understood enough to realise that the portfolio was far more than just a collection of animal drawings. This, after all, is the whole point of Munch’s art.  He was an Expressionist, a Symbolist, who believed that art should not merely imitate Nature, but should include the soul, and the truth of life itself. Unlike the boy in the zoo, who does simply paint what he sees in front of him. A tiger. A bear. And that’s why he’s there, and what the story is about – the importance of art, it’s healing power and the deeper meaning of it. Not about a famous artist’s visit to a zoo, at all.

Writing this piece has reminded me of my original story idea, and I’ve been looking at it again. There are a lot of notes, and two different outlines… or three.  None of it is as bad as I thought, but I’m seeing quite a different angle now. Something I like the idea of, making me think there’s definite potential for another story. Which shows, I like to think, as I’ve said elsewhere, that nothing you write is ever wasted.

Diana Powell-2Diana Powell lives in Pembrokeshire, where the lure of the coast and the demands of her woodland garden conspire to keep her away from her desk. When she manages to resist, she writes short-stories and novels, and has won several competitions for the former, including the last PenFro Festival, and the previous Allen Raine Award. She is currently working on a collection of stories and a Young Adult book.She is married, and has two sons

You can read ‘Herr Munch..’ in the new issue of the Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

Copyright © Diana Powell, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.