Legacy of Experimentalism Continues

Today, Friday 22 October, marks the grand opening of the new Munch Museum in Oslo.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1910-11. Oil on canvas. Photo: The Munch Museum.

The new Munch Museum will officially open at 17:00 today, Friday 22 October. Visitors who have not already obtained a ticket for admission to the museum, however, must content themselves with attending the outdoor street party featuring an opening ceremony with the King and Queen, a commissioned work by the composer Koka Nikoladze, and musical contributions from a number of other artists.

The new museum building was designed by the architectural firm Estudio Herreras and encompasses eleven exhibition spaces spread across thirteen floors. With its new italicised logo and perforated grey aluminium façade, the vertical building towers above Oslo’s Bjørvika district. This week, its interior can finally be experienced in its entirety, presenting seven opening exhibitions and an opening programme.

The head of the Munch Museum’s Department of Exhibitions and Collections, Jon-Ove Steihaug, told Kunstkritikk that he hopes the architecture will contribute to excellent art experiences – and cultural experiences.

“There is a quality inherent in the alternation between immersing oneself in art and also being able to retreat from it and look out at the city. To first enter a kind of ‘exhibition cave’ where there is no daylight, then step out into this dynamic area with escalators where you can take in the light and atmosphere which surrounds the building,” Steihaug said.

Installation view from the collection exhibition Infinite, Munch 2021. Photo: Einar Aslaksen.

He added that the museum aims to reach out to local and international audiences alike “Obviously, a visitor from Hong Kong who is in Oslo for just one day and comes to see Munch will want to specifically see works by Munch. While someone who lives in Oslo and follows the art scene here may well be interested in seeing other things. We will cater to both.”

A tradition of experimentalism

The new Munch Museum increases the scale and scope of its permanent exhibitions featuring works from both the Edvard Munch and Rolf Stenersen collections. At the same time, the museum will offer several temporary exhibitions and interactive experiences. Emphasis is placed on interdisciplinary activity through the new ‘Munch Live’ programme.

The museum’s collection consists of approximately 28,000 works of art, mainly by Edvard Munch, but also includes modernist works by artists from Munch’s own day. The museum has a long-established tradition of bringing in contemporary art to engage the collection in conversation. This has happened ever since the Munch Museum opened in Tøyen in 1963 and at the Stenersen Museum since 1994.

Installation view from the collection exhibition Monumental, Munch 2021. Photo: Einar Aslaksen.

Steihaug believes this benefits the museum: “This is a huge advantage for us: we have these very firm foundations in history, but we can also do contemporary art. In a way, this is a baton we have been handed by the Stenersen Museum, which presented a very active contemporary programme in its day.” Stressing that Rolf Stenersen was also interested in the contemporary art of his own period, not just Munch, he added: “At Tøyen in the 1960s and 1970s, you also saw considerable focus on interdisciplinary approaches. This is an important part of our DNA as an art museum.”

With the project ‘Munch Museum On the Move’ (2016–19), a range of younger artists were invited to exhibit at Kunsthall Oslo during the lead-up to the new museum building’s opening. Next year will see the launch of ‘Solo Oslo’, the museum’s new initiative focusing on contemporary art, with Sandra Mujinga as the first featured artist. The aforementioned ‘Munch Live’, focuses on music, performance, video, and discursive programming. Supplementing the ever-changing exhibition programme, the goal of the live programme is to imbue Munch’s art with contemporary relevance while the same time continuing the museum’s legacy of experimental programming.

“We want to show Munch’s art, but also understand it in new ways,” Steihaug asserted. “Giving the collection topical relevance is one of the basic expectations one can reasonably have of such a museum.”

Installation view from the biographical exhibition Shadows, Munch 2021. Photo: Einar Aslaksen.

A female twist

One of the highlights of the opening programme is the temporary exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul featuring works by Munch and British artist Tracey Emin.

Emin is often associated with the Young British Artists (YBA), a movement that emerged in Britain during the late 1980s. She shot to fame as a finalist for the 1999 Turner Prize with the ready-made installation My Bed (1998). The iconic work is now on view in Norway for the first time.

Curator Kari J. Brandtzæg said that she is very proud to be able to include My Bed in the exhibition, and described the installation of the work, with its many small and fragile objects, as very complicated. “The fact that we managed to get this famous installation to Oslo is quite staggering. The bed is hardly ever shown outside of England, and it probably won’t happen again in the next decade,” she told Kunstkritikk.

“I experienced My Bed at the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain in 1999 and it made a major impression on everyone who saw it then,” Brandtzæg said. “Today, it probably does not seem as provocative to the audience. On the other hand, it has gained status as a masterpiece of recent European art history, offering a kind of female twist on Duchamp’s urinal.”

Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998. Installation view from the exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul, Munch 2021. Photo: Ivar Kvaal.

The Loneliness of the Soul shows old and new works by Emin juxtaposed with sixteen specially selected Munch works from the collection. The exhibition comprises six sections, ending on the tenth floor with the recent photographic series Insomnia (2019), consisting of self-portraits taken by Emin when she has been unable to sleep.

The idea for the show was first launched four years ago. Brandtzæg, who has collaborated with Emin before, said that this has been a dream project ever since she joined the Munch Museum in 2015. “Munch’s confessional method has of course been a driving force for Tracey Emin in her art. As she herself says, she ‘fell in love with Edvard’ when she was 18. Through Munch’s art, she found the courage to use herself and her own traumas as subject matter in her art,” Brandtzæg explained.

When Emin was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, artist Harry Weller picked up the ongoing dialogue with the curator. Weller has worked closely with Emin for the past ten years and is now head of the Tracey Emin Studio. “He has been very important for Tracey Emin and for our collaboration, especially during the last year with the pandemic, Emin’s cancer, and the implementation of the smaller version of the exhibition that was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London,” Brandtzæg said.

In 2018, Emin won the competition for a new permanent work of art for the new museum building with the sculpture The Mother. Standing nine metres tall, the bronze sculpture will be installed by the waterfront at the museum in the spring of 2022.

Works by Tracey Emin and Edvard Munch, installation view from the exhibition The Loneliness of the Soul, Munch 2021. Photo: Ivar Kvaal