Self Portrait with a Wine Bottle

Essay by Mehmet Cihan Yalçın


The “Self-Portrait with a Wine Bottle” is not a representation of the physical appearance of the painter, Edvard Munch, but rather it is a psychological expression of his inner dilemmas. As such we can call this a portrayal of the painter’s troubled psyche.

Therefore, this picture cannot be explained like a photograph, by the images it conveys. It can only be understood by the clear definition of what it represents. The feelings such as fear, loneliness, hopelessness, uncertainty, and concepts such as phobia, isolation and death are symbolized by the unique technique of the artist and the symbolic values of the few discernable objects in the painting.

The use of colors itself, in the first place, gives the painting a grim tone. Most hues are dull and cold and warm hues have darkness and contrasts in themselves. For example, as stated in the oppressing dark red background puts the man in a state of tortured existence. A striking exception in the usage of colors is the brightly colored necktie, which is a focus of attention in the painting and is a vivid blood red. This may well be a metaphor and the tie most probably represents his jugular. I assume that this is one of the symbols representing death. Another is the tables, which make one think of “white clad coffins”.

The artist has an expression of nearly catatonic lament; and lines of pain and anguish is visible in his features, as well as represented by his distorted form. The people in the background seem distant and cold, giving a sense of alienation and helplessness. As such, the only friendly figure in the painting seems to be the wine bottle, which stands out in the picture and is seemingly has more “substance” than anything else, except the painter, in the picture. This can be explained by Munch's increasing subsistance on tobacco and alcohol.

This most certainly defines the psychological state of Munch in 1906, lonely and in anguish. His life has always been an oppressing and painful one, yet his neurosis reached its zenith in those years and after a neural breakdown in 1908-09, he was voluntarily confined in Dr. Jacobson’s clinic.


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