Nearly everyone who visits Oslo makes time for the Munch-museet (Munch Museum) – and with good reason. In his will, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) donated all the works in his possession to Oslo city council, a mighty bequest of several thousand paintings, prints, drawings, engravings and photographs, which took nearly twenty years to catalogue and organize before being displayed in this purpose-built gallery. The museum has, however, had its problems: in August 2004, two armed robbers marched into the museum and, in full view of dozens of bemused visitors, lifted two Munch paintings – the Madonna and The Scream, his most famous work (though fortunately Munch painted several versions – the earliest is in the Nasjonalgalleriet). As if this wasn’t bad enough, further embarrassments followed: it turned out that the paintings were not alarmed and neither were they especially secure, only being attached to the wall by a cord. The two works of art were finally recovered two years later and, in a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the gallery has beefed up its security, though tentative plans are afoot to close it down and move the collection to central Oslo.
The Munch-museet’s permanent collection is huge, and only a small – but always significant – part can be shown at any one time, so the paintings are frequently rotated. The museum also sources a lively programme of temporary exhibitions concentrating on various aspects of Munch’s work. Naturally, all this means that you can’t be certain what will be displayed and when, but the key paintings mentioned below are most likely to be on view. At the start of the museum, an illustrated, potted biography of Munch and a short film on his life and times sets the scene.
Early and 1890s paintings
The landscapes and domestic scenes of Munch’s early paintings, such as Tête à Tête and At the Coffee Table, reveal the perceptive if deeply pessimistic realism from which Munch’s later work sprang. Even more riveting are the great works of the 1890s, which form the core of the collection. Considered Munch’s finest achievements, several of these key paintings are grouped together in the so-called Frieze of Life, whose preoccupations were love, anxiety and death. Among the wonderful paintings from this period come Dagny Juel, a portrait of the Berlin socialite Ducha Przybyszewska, with whom both Munch and Strindberg were infatuated; the searing representations of Despair and Anxiety; the chilling Red Virginia Creeper, a house being consumed by the plant; the deeply unsettling Eye in Eye; and, of course, The Scream – of which the museum holds several versions.
Munch’s style was never static and a batch of his later paintings, produced after he had recovered from his breakdown and withdrawn to the tranquillity of the Oslofjord, reflect a renewed interest in nature and physical work – Workers On Their Way Home (1913) is a prime example. His technique was also changeable: in works like the Death of Marat II (1907) he began to use streaks of colour to represent points of light. Later still, paintings such as Garden in Kragerø and Model by the Wicker Chair, with skin tones of pink, green and blue, begin to reveal a happier, if rather idealized, attitude to his surroundings, though this is most evident in works like Spring Ploughing, painted in 1916. But for Munch, the unsettling and the perturbing were never far away and so he returned to the themes of the 1890s again and again as in the Dance of Life, first painted in 1900 with another version appearing twenty-five years later.
Throughout his life, Munch had a penchant for self-portraits and these provide a graphic illustration of the artist’s state of mind at various points in his life. There’s a palpable sadness in his Self-Portrait with Wine Bottle (1906), along with obvious allusions to his heavy drinking, while the telling perturbation of In Distress (1919) and The Night Wanderer (1923) indicates that he remained a tormented, troubled man even in his later years. One of his last works, Self-Portrait by the Window (1940), shows a glum figure on the borderline between life and death, the strong red of his face and green of his clothing contrasting with the ice-white scene visible through the window.
Lithographs and woodcuts
Munch’s lithographs and woodcuts, of which the museum owns several hundred, are a dark catalogue of swirls and fogs, technically brilliant pieces of work and often developments of his paintings rather than just simple copies. In them, he pioneered a new medium of expression, experimenting with colour schemes and a huge variety of materials, which enhance the works’ rawness: many of his wood blocks, for example, show a heavy, distinct grain, while there are colours like rust and blue drawn from the Norwegian landscape. The hand-coloured lithographs tend to be, by comparison, more sensuous with many focusing on the theme of love (taking the form of a woman) bringing death.
Born in 1863, Edvard Munch had a melancholy childhood in what was then Christiania (Oslo). His early years were overshadowed by the early deaths of both his mother and a sister from tuberculosis, as well as the fierce Christian piety of his father. After some early works, including several self-portraits, he went on to study in Paris, a city he returned to again and again, and where he fell (fleetingly) under the sway of the Impressionists in general and Gauguin in particular, responding to the French painter’s simplified forms and non-naturalistic colours. In 1892 Munch moved to Berlin, where his style developed and he produced some of his best and most famous work, though his first exhibition there was considered so outrageous it was closed after only a week – his painting was, a critic opined, “an insult to art”: his recurrent themes, notably jealousy, sickness, alienation and the awakening of sexual desire, all of which he had extrapolated from his childhood, were simply too much for his early audience. Nevertheless, despite the initial criticism, Munch’s work was subsequently exhibited in many of the leading galleries of the day.
Generally considered the initiator of the Expressionist movement, Munch wandered Europe, painting and exhibiting prolifically. Meanwhile overwork, drink and problematic love affairs were fuelling an instability that culminated, in 1908, in a nervous breakdown. Munch spent six months in a Copenhagen clinic, after which his health improved greatly, and though his paintings lost the hysterical edge characteristic of his most celebrated work he never dismissed the importance of his mental frailness to his art, writing, for example, “I would not cast off my illness, for there is much in my art that I owe to it.”
Munch returned to Norway in 1909 and was based there until his death in 1944. He wasn’t, however, a popular figure in his homeland despite – or perhaps because of – his high international profile and he was regularly criticized in the press for all manner of alleged faults, from miserliness to artistic arrogance. Neither was his posthumous reputation enhanced by the state funeral organized for him by the occupying Germans, his coffin paraded up Karl Johans gate in a cortege of guns, eagles and swastikas. To be fair, Munch had certainly not wanted a fascist funeral and neither was he sympathetic to the Germans, who he feared would end up confiscating his paintings and burning them as “degenerate” art – as they nearly did.