One of the things I love most about life is the way in which suddenly two or more of the fragments that make up our day to day experiences will fit together, like pieces on a jigsaw and begin to reveal a picture larger than had previously been apparent. Yesterday I went to see the programme about the current Edvard Munch exhibition that has been showing this week in some of our cinemas. I was in two minds about whether or not to go because the only Munch work that I could identify was the ubiquitous Scream and I wasn’t sure I could live for an hour and a half in the mind of a man who felt that way about life. Well, I went and it was the right decision because although he certainly didn’t have the happiest or the easiest of lives his work is varied and often, for me at least, far more interesting than the picture that has made him famous around the world.
Munch’s early life was blighted by the ill health and subsequent death of members of his family, including his mother and elder sister Johanne Sophie, both from tuberculosis. The picture here, The Sick Child, was completed in 1885 but inevitably draws on the experience of those two deaths in 1868 and 1877. Coincidently, early in the day I had been re-reading some of my favourite passages from Little Women, first published in 1868, and the two experiences came together to make me realise something that I knew at one level but that had never properly sunk in, namely how common tuberculosis was in the mid to late nineteenth century and how often its diagnosis became a death sentence. This could just as easily be a representation of Jo March sitting at the deathbed of her sister Beth, or in reality Louisa May mourning over Elizabeth Alcott. For me this is a superb picture that completely captures the heartbreak of the one to be left behind, whereas the child who is sick and soon to die is almost radiant in her acceptance of the inevitable, just as Alcott portrays the reactions of the March family to Beth’s death in Good Wives.
Like many people I was inoculated against this dreadful disease when in my teens and so have been spared the distress that it caused in so many families, including my own in previous generations, even during the earlier years of the twentieth century. It is horrifying to recognise that here in the UK at least, it is again beginning to gain a foothold. We do not need scenes like this to become commonplace once more.