The artist contracted an intraocular haemorrhage in his right eye in 1930, at the age of 66.The blood in his eye coagulated, leading to shapes, spots and smudges superimposed on to everything he saw. Nowan American professor of ophthalmology has claimed that the semi-abstract watercolours Munch painted while suffering from the disease reveal the symptoms of his illness. His new research is to be published by the Tate, which will dedicate a room to a series of rarely displayed images in an exhibition which opens on 28 June.
Michael Marmor, of Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, said: "Munch was deeply frightened by the ocular haemorrhage. This is evident in a drawing where he is portrayed with a skull-like visage. In another drawing his hands are held to his head in the same pose of fear and anguish as the famous subject of The Scream."
The effects of the coagulated blood in Munch's eye created bird-like shapes and concentric circles, often in vivid colours, which Marmor likened to the aura emitted around bright lights on a foggy day: "It is possible that these [circles] represent a view through his resolving haemorrhage as he looked towards an electric light or the sun. He annotated many of his drawings 'electric light' or 'sunshine' to indicate the conditions under which they were made."
Other sketches show the presence of a dense blind spot, or scotoma, near the centre of his visual field. "Sometimes it was simply an opaque shape, but in one striking watercolour it became a skull covering the foot of the artist's bed. In that picture he portrayed himself with a hand covering his left eye, the better to observe the nature of the scotoma on the right."
In a particularly poignant sketch, a nude figure is obscured partially by the scotoma – expressing Munch's frustration as an artist who cannot see the core of his subject.
As the haemorrhage cleared, Munch perceived the debris in his eye as misty shadows: "Dark spots … like small flocks of crows far up when I look at the sky … which by a sudden movement or by the effect of sharp light are moved from their origin – when they suddenly disappear." Munch consulted one of the most eminent ophthalmologists in his native Norway, who concluded that the haemorrhage was caused by "over-exertion", and prescribed complete rest.
Marmor said that Munch was so fearful of being unable to paint that he spent his convalescence pursuing photography. "However, by 1931 he was again painting, and the strange images disappeared for ever from his work."
Mamor said that Munch's pictures differed in one important aspect from those by other artists with damaged eyesight. "Although the effects of ophthalmic problems such as cataracts can be seen in the works of artists such as Degas and Monet, Munch was unique because he gave us scenes from within the eye itself."
Ingebjørg Ydstie, chief curator at the Munch Museum in Oslo, added that the watercolours are a "remarkable artistic, medical and personal document".