Christmas in the Brothel – Edvard Munch

Merry Christmas!  I hope that you have all opened your presents and received everything you could want (or a plethora of socks and pants at least).  I would like to take a moment to thank all of the people who have visited this website this year, I have been overwhelmed with the amount of readers this year, and I find it incredibly rewarding that so many would take this journey with me in trying to break art down into something that everyone can understand.  I do also want to take the opportunity to thank those people who have supported me endlessly in undertaking this.  Art is incredibly important to me, but sometimes writing articles like these can be daunting, so having that support is something I am forever grateful of.

Last year a did a Christmas series on the darker side of the festive season, showed work that had depicted the monsters of world that emerge in an effort to keep children behaving, this year I guess I am tackling a different sort of monster, and I am remembering those who feel the loneliness of the season.

Munch is most known for his painting “The Scream“, commonly known as the visual embodiment on anxiety, but while on the surface “Christmas in the Brothel” looks fairly serene, it holds a sad undertone of those who are cast out from families or have no one else to turn to, so seek paid company.

Born on the 12th December 1863, Munch’s childhood was shrouded in illness, bereavement and the fear of inheriting a mental illness that ran in the family.  While studying at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania, Munch started to live the Bohemian lifestyle and fell under the influence of the nihilist Hans Jaeger, who encouraged Munch to paint his emotions, commonly known as “Soul Painting”, this is where his very distinctive style emerged.

Munch came across many influencers in his life such as Van Gogh, Lautrec, Gauguin and  August Strindberg, who taught him about colour use and creating atmosphere which helped cement the creation of his most iconic painting.  Throughout his journey his personal life was fraught with mental illness and heavy drinking and at the peak of his career his mental stability was a tightly drawn string, leading to a breakdown in 1908 which forced him to give up drinking but also accept the people around him.

After this point Munch lived a self sufficient lifestyle near Oslo, and while a lot of his work was banned in Germany in World War 2, and it was removed from museums and exhibitions being marked as degenerate art, it wasn’t destroyed, leaving it to become his legacy after his death in 1944.

“Christmas at the Brothel” was painted between 1903-1904 and was probably during the peak of Munch’s mental instability, as a commissioned painting deal had fallen through due to a disagreement and he was attempting to manage his anxiety with alcohol.  The painting was created after a visit to the Lübeck brothel during this time, but this would be the setting of many other pieces of his work thereafter, “The Green Room” being one of those pieces.

The painting essentially doesn’t scream brothel, unlike other works of this era, the women are all clothed and at a glance you could be forgiven for thinking it is just women in a sitting room.  There is a Christmas tree central to the painting, all the women on the right hand side of the painting and empty tables and chairs to the left.  It is a fairly stark room aside the Christmas tree, and the main focal point is the woman reading and smoking in the foreground.

The colourisation within the painting is muted predominantly brown and ochre making the room feel like nothing special, but also making the white shirt of the woman in the foreground stand out – fairly ironic for a lady of disrepute to be wearing white at Christmas, but this is an ironically unholy Christmas scene.

The painting is thought to be a social statement on the upper class household of Max Linde (the place where Munch was residing at the time of the painting) and his own religious upbring, which both sit in direct contrast to this setting.

What I find incredibly striking in this is how unexpected it is that this is a brothel.  I guess without the name of the painting, you wouldn’t know that it was one.  The painting feels melancholy and I think it is only really the title that really gives away the true undertone of this painting.  Women who have created their own “family” through working the sex trade being visited by lonely men who are paying for their company, and I find it incredibly telling about Munch’s state of mind and social practises at the time.

I chose this painting to write about as it is all too easy to forget those in need at this time of year, as you are surrounded by family and having one too many tipples before the turkey is out of the oven.

If you know of people alone (not just at Christmas) please remember to reach out as you don’t know the monsters they are dealing with.

You can find more help by visiting the Samaritans website which can be found here

I wish you all a very merry and peaceful Christmas.

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