To experience such a large number of Edvard Munch’s most famous and important works in one show is an overwhelming experience. In this exhibition, we can see Munch develop and renew his painting over sixty years. It is incredibly fascinating to see.
The extensive anniversary exhibition Munch 150 in Oslo includes 250 works divided between the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design and the Munch Museum. The National Museum has cleared out their entire second floor to make way for the artist’s early period, up to and including 1903, in thirteen rooms, while the Munch Museum shows his later work from 1904-1944 in eleven rooms spread throughout the entire building. One walks past masterpiece after masterpiece in the exhibition. The tremendous effort behind this ambitious project, which has required the National Museum and the Munch Museum to collaborate closely with Munch’s art as the focus and not either institution’s prestige, is evident and for this accomplishment alone congratulations are in order.
The two institutions have also succeeded in gathering many important works on loan from Europe and the United States, and especially gratifying is the fact that the Thiel Gallery, under new management, has for the first time in many decades chosen to generously collaborate and contribute such important works as the first version of the painting The Scream, which has the title Syk stemning ved solnedgang (Sick Mood at Sunset), and the grandiose painting Damene på broen (Ladies on the Bridge), which was owned by Munch’s German patron Max Linde before Ernest Thiel could acquire it for his collection. Another work lent by Thiel is the magnificent portrait of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In exchange, Thiel Gallery was able to borrow important works from the National Museum and the Munch Museum for their Munch exhibition in Stockholm earlier this year.
Airy in the National Museum
Overall, the rooms are airy and the works have space around them to breathe. Within the exhibition’s chronological division there are thematic groupings. One can see how during his residence in France the young Munch was influenced by naturalism, of en plein air painting and impressionism and we can follow how he uses different expressions and styles simultaneously during a period in which he tries to apply them to Norwegian nature and the Norwegian environment, just as Christian Krohg and the slightly older generation had done when they came home from their studies in Germany and France.
It is not the external reality that will subsequently be Munch’s primary interest, however, rather the invisible, inner reality. Munch creates images of modern humanity during a time of great transformation, where many facets of life, not in the least gender roles, were in the process of changing. Munch is interested in the modern life of the soul and this is presented and explored in his images with a complexity that no one before him had reached. As he explores man’s desire for intimacy, he simultaneously displays his anxiety about this intimacy, in, for example, the painting Vampyr (Vampire). The notion that to come closer one has to lose some control, thereby making oneself vulnerable, is just as topical today as it was nearly 110 years ago. When Vampyr was shown in a large presentation of the then rather young artist in Stockholm in 1894, the work was entitled Kjærlighet og smerte (Love and Pain).
The exhibition Munch 150 provides an opportunity to see how themes developed and shifted over the course of the artist’s career. For example, the love motif where attraction and union lead to emancipation, pain and jealously, followed by loneliness; or how every person goes through life’s great cycles from birth to death and tries to understand this journey. We see a vocabulary emerge in Munch’s art that includes concepts and motifs that he then uses throughout his entire oeuvre, among them “shadow”, which describes the threatening, unknown and uncontrollable, or “moonlight” (the full moon’s reflection in water), which enunciates the allure of the erotic and the dangerous. Munch is a virtuoso in forming the complex palette of emotions and inner feelings; his images are investigations of what it means to be human in picture form.
That one gets the opportunity to study Munch’s work so thoroughly is this exhibition’s greatest quality, even if the curators behind it do not develop a new or more nuanced presentation of the artist. It will be a long time until anyone is able to see so many central works together again in one place. A personal discovery was the painting Stormen (The Storm) from 1893, owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For the first time I noticed how the figures hold their hands to their faces in the same way as the figure in the angst-ridden painting The Scream from the same period!
The choices of how to display Munch’s work in this anniversary exhibition are not always unproblematic. The strong wall colors are so dominating they more often than not fail to emphasize and accentuate Munch’s work, instead weakening the viewer’s ability to experience the delicate painterly nuances. This applies first and foremost to the dark red and orange walls. In general there is a degree of insensitivity in how the exhibition is put together. There are often too many elements in the rooms and this distracts from the art. Instead of daring to put the work in exciting dialogues, the wall texts are behind reflective Plexiglas that makes the texts difficult to read. I also think that a work as central as Munch’s Self-portrait with Cigarette from Berlin 1895, which is shown in its shipping crate in a room with only blown up photographs of Munch on the wall, shows that the work has not been approached with the proper gravity. Munch does not need all this messing about. Perhaps one could instead have shown a short film about how this particular work has traveled around Norway as a prelude to the anniversary, but let it come into its own in the show. Or maybe it could have been shown together with the portrait of his friend from the Ferkel-circle in Berlin, the music student Dagny Juel, or as the creator of the frieze of life and the modern life of the soul in the halls that are about these themes.
Another problematic aspect of the exhibition on the whole is the blending of original works with blown up photographs of paintings the organizers were unable to acquire for the show, as in the section that is about Livsfrisen (Frieze of Life) in Berlin in 1902, where five of the twenty-two works are photographs. If these were instead shown as black and white photographs it would have enhanced the viewer’s understanding of how the curators have tried to reconstruct Munch’s presentation.
I also reacted to the seating in the room «Summer Night» at the National Museum, which perhaps is meant to evoke the stones in Munch’s landscape paintings from Åsgårdstrand. Their different colors are taken from the paintings and they become the focal point in the room. The resulting design competes with the summer night works for the viewer’s attention.
More considered in Munch Museum
The Munch Museum is a difficult venue to undertake coherent presentations of work, but I think the presentation in there is more thoughtful and interesting than in the National Museum. The fact that one can here see the Reinhard-frieze in one room is wonderful, as is how the paintings from the Green room have been placed on a patterned wallpaper and split up onto two walls to annunciate the manic quality of these images, which came to being in a time of great imbalance in Munch’s life. Furthermore, the division of the work between «Dynamic landscape» and the group of full-length portraits that Munch described as his personal guards is interesting.
It is also exciting to see the later version of Livsfrisen and, in display cases, the sketches of how Munch had imaged different presentations of this cycle of work. That they have chosen to have The Scream and an early Madonna painting from the 1890s included in the presentation as well, however, makes it so that these works with more subdued color schemes become almost invisible.
Overall, there are too few sketches and works on paper describing the process that led to Munch’s various motifs. It would have been important to integrate some of these examples. I also felt a more detailed presentation of Munch’s fantastic graphic work and maybe also his photographic work and experiments was missing.
A comprehensive catalogue has been produced in connection with the exhibition. This too has not been sufficiently considered concerning the design and quality of the images. The decision to chose a glossy paper stands in stark contrast to Munch’s desire to not varnish his images to maintain their nuances of color. This would have come out better on uncoated paper. Weighing 2.5 kilos, the catalogue is too heavy and difficult to manage. It is not, unfortunately, a book you want to have on your lap to flip through.
Apart from all criticisms of the exhibition, it is fantastic to be able to encounter Munch’s artistry in such breadth. We can look forward to the planned symposium in September where Norwegian and international researchers will come to discuss Munch’s oeuvre from different angles.