“Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye … it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.” — Edvard Munch
Here’s my guide to tyhe Munch Museum, one of Oslo’s top attractions. And it’s where you’ll find Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The world famous painting depicts the open mouthed agonized face of a waif-like figure holding his ears beneath a fiery sunset.
The Scream has become an iconic image of modern art, effectively the Mona Lisa of modern art. Munch described it as a “soul painting.” In it, he revealed an honest, ugly glimpse of inner anxiety and torment.
It’s definitely worth a trip to the Munch Museum in Oslo to see The Scream in person. I adore single artist museums. And the Munch Museum is one of the most comprehensive one-man museums in the world.
When he died in 1940, Edvard Munch willed his artworks to Oslo. His donation included a whopping 28,000 paintings, sketches, photographs and sculptures. Unable to part with them, Munch had kept them locked away on the second floor of his home outside Oslo.
Who knew there were 28,000 Munchs in the world? Munch is known for a single work, The Scream. But that’s not an accurate portrayal of the man or his long and distinguished career. In reality, he was one of the most prolific and influential painters of his time.
Edvard Munch, The Man and His Story
Munch was born in Norway in 1863. His childhood was miserable, and his life was deeply troubled. When he was 5, his mother died of tuberculosis and he was left in the care of his mentally ill father, who was a religious fanatic.
His favorite sister died at 14 of tuberculosis, a dagger to his heart. Munch almost did as well, then felt guilty for surviving. Another sister spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness. His one brother died suddenly of pneumonia at 30. In 1880, his father, who never understoond his art, died abruptly of a stroke.
Munch was raised on a constant diet of with fear and anxiety. It made him depressive and extremely self-obsessed. Art served as an outlet for his own raw, overwrought emotions.
In 1885, Munch traveled to Paris. He was heavily influenced by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. For a time, he adopted the loose brushstrokes of the Impressionists, but not their placid landscapes. As an early symbolist, Gauguin was a powerful influence on Munch. Munch adopted his vivid color and flat design.
Munch changed styles frequently in his early carer, always experimenting. It’s hard to pigeonhole him as an artist. Most critics view him was a prominent Symbolist and Expressionist. He was perhaps the world’s first true Expressionist, and heavily influenced subsequent German Expressionism.
Munch always focused on the internal, not the external, of a given subject. Though he portrayed others, much of his work is a self-portrait, which could be viewed as a bit narcissistic. He had an utter lack of decorum, and had no problem making private terrors and infirmities public.
Munch never married and his relationships with women were fraught. He seemed incapable of forming deep connections. He had a suspicious view of women and couldn’t commit. To him, love and pain seemed intertwined. Munch painted many love triangles and portrayed women as dark creatures, seducers and destroyers. He apparently felt victimized by women, as well as by life.
Munch had a long off again on again love affair with Tulla Larsen. It was mostly a tormented relationship. She aggressively pursued him and he aggressively resisted by running away. Not always successfully.
In 1902, they quarreled and Munch was shot in the finger of his left hand (it’s unclear who fired the shot). It left a physical and psychological wound.
In typical exaggerated fashion, Munch called the damage “monstrous” and said he “had sacrificed needlessly for a whore.” He even created a remake of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting The Death of Marat, with Tulla Larsen as the murderous Charlotte Corday.
In the next few years, Munch grew increasingly agitated. As part of Berlin’s “black piglet group,” he began drinking heavily, including absinthe. He publicly argued with friends, got into barroom brawls, and even shot a fellow artist. By 1908, Munch was suffering hallucinations and checked himself into a clinic in Copenhagen.
There, he had shock treatment, was “cured,” and quit drinking. Eight months later, in May 1909, he left and returned to Norway for good.
The remainder of his life was spent in relative calm and seclusion at his estate in Ekely outside Oslo. It was like a homestay geographical cure, after a peripatetic, cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Life was, probably intentionally, less tumultuous. Munch hung back from the “dance of life,” possibly to maintain his sanity. But he kept many of his early paintings around him as a reminder.
The Art of Edvard Munch
Munch called his paintings his “children” and may have sacrificed his life for them. They certainly reflected his psychic load.
Munch didn’t believe in coddling his children either. He disliked overly finished and perfect paintings. He embraced the power of messiness. He sometimes scratched some of his paintings with sharp tools.
Munch often painted outside. He left his paintings exposed to the elements, in Darwinian fashion, to give them the right patina. A version of The Scream was once found to have bird droppings on it when x-rayed.
Early on, Munch seemed to embrace mental illness, saying that “illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.” And, according to Munch, they were inextricably tied to his psychologically charged art:
“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Munch’s art was a visual autobiography. His themes were life and death, love and terror, and the desperate feelings of loneliness and despair. He wanted to “paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”
When he painted The Scream, Munch said the “air turned to blood,” the “faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white,” and he heard “a huge endless scream course through nature.”
Munch depicted these emotions with the contrasting lines, darker colors, blocks and blobs of color, somber tones, and exaggerated forms. He is often compared with Van Gogh, who also painted what he called “the mysterious centers of the mind.” Like Van Gogh, Munch rejected the niceties and strictures of the Salon.
In his later years, Munch’s art reflected his calmer, recovery-from-a-breakdown life. He wrote that “The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright.”
Munch painted landscapes, ordinary workers, and factory workers. His works seemed muted and lacked the power they did earlier in his career. The outward distress of The Scream was largely gone.
But before you think Munch completely mellowed out, he painted The Sun in 1909. The work is an achievement of modern mural painting, installed in the assembly hall of Oslo University. In it, the sun is “inhuman itself, it is the source of all life.”
Munch had a knack for self promotion. The Scream was an immediate success. His exhibitions in Berlin, particularly his Frieze of Life grouping, brought him fame throughout Europe even though they were controversial. By age 40, he was fairly wealthy, unusual by artist standards of the time.
The Theft of the Screams in Oslo
The Munch Museum opened in 1963 to celebrate the artist’s centenary. It contains the largest body of his work in the world, including over 1000 paintings.
But it wasn’t very secure.
In August 2004, a late 1910 version of The Scream and the painting Madonna were stolen at a gunpoint. In dramatic fashion, the masked men men boldly walked up to The Scream, tore it off the wall, then grabbed Madonna on their way out. No alarms went off. The paintings were only attached to the walls by wire.
Another version of The Scream was previously stolen from the National Museum in Oslo in 1994. The thefts of The Scream, like the Mona Lisa, only magnified the fame and importance of the purloined image. Sadly, the fame of the paintings seems to exceed that of its creator.
After the theft, the Munch Museum was closed for 10 months to beef up security. In 2008, Oslo decided to build a new museum. In 2009, an international jury chose Spanish architect Juan Herreros’ proposal Lambda. The museum is scheduled to open in 2020.
Recently, it was reported that a trove of Munch paintings and prints have been filched, likely by Oslo students. Rolf Stenersen donated 34 Munch’s to Oslo. In 1951, they were (I can hardly believe it) displayed on walls in a student dorm complex.
Over time, many disappeared. A recent inventory uncovered the missing prints. Munch’s descendant Elisabeth Munch-Ellingsen has called the situation “truly scandalous.” The ones that remain were transferred to the Munch Museum in 2010.
Highlights of the Munch Museum in Oslo
Apart from those shown above, here are the best paintings from Oslo’s Munch Museum. There are several outright masterpieces — haunting, chilling and melancholic.
The Dance of Life is one of Munch’s true masterpieces. It shows couples dancing under the moon on a summer’s evening. The focus point of the painting is the couple in the middle, believed to be Munch and his first love, Milly Thaulow.
The image as a whole tells a story of human experience, and the two women facing the couple on each side represent the different stages of a woman’s life. The one on the left is an image of child-like innocence. On the right is a mouthful older woman in dark colors.
In 1892, Munch completed his darkly colored Evening on Karl Johan Street. This portrayal of Karl Johan Street is the complete opposite of Munch’s image of the street the street in Spring from 1891. The sun has set, and a group of mourning pedestrians seem to be walking away from a funeral or some kind of dreadful event.
The painting provoked outrage. Critics called it an “insult to art,” too modern. But the controversy made Munch both famous and infamous.
This rather shocking painting is nicknamed Vampire, and was painted right after The Scream. It depict one of Munch’s favorite themes, that of a forlorn man and a dominating woman.
It shows a depleted man surrendering to a vampire’s tortured embrace, though Munch always claimed it was “just a kiss.” The painting may depict Munch’s distress at the end of his first love affair with Taulow. Or it could reference his visits to illicit prostitutes.
When it was unveiled in Berlin, “It was shocking to Berlin society just as it is shocking today. Munch painted six different versions of Vampire, and three are at the Munch Museum.
Edvard Munch completed six versions of The Sick Child between 1885 and 1926. The image shows the influence of Van Gogh and Gaugain. It depicts a weak, pale young girl in bed with an older woman sitting in grief by her side.
Munch’s sister died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, the reference point for the painting. He himself also almost died of the infectious disease. Munch was working through his feelings of loss. It’s believed that the image records his despair and guilt that he survived but not his favorite sister.
This one captivates me. It’s a sad, emotional image of separated lovers. It illustrates love, loss, and heartbreak, showing a young man leaning against a tree and holding his heart with a faceless, illuminated woman in the background floating away. This might mean that memories of her will always haunt him.
Then, there are groups of paintings that are directly symbolic. For example, there are many portraits of women showing the emotions of love, death, jealousy, despair, and anxiety.
There are siblings of the The Scream, with the same swirling lines, abject emotion, and dehumanized faces.
There’s Munch’s own version of Starry Night. In it, Munch captured the emotions summoned by the night, rather than just recording its picturesque qualities. The color blue conveys the mysticism and melancholy of the landscape, which seems full of premonitions.
In his last self portrait, painted in his dying years, Munch confronts death. In Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed, he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is old – albeit not without an element of defiance in the face of the death which awaits him. He would die in 1944.
With the stance of an old man he places himself between the two symbols of death — a faceless clock and the waiting bed. Munch stands between the sun-lit room behind him, full of works of art which have been his whole life, and the bedroom, where the shadow on the floor in front of him has the shape of a cross.
Pop Artist Jasper Johns was influenced by Munch and this particular painting, which dealt with mortality. After shifting away from his iconic targets and flags, Johns used the cross hatched pattern of the bed in his 1970s abstractions.
If you’re in Oslo, stop in and have a scream at the fantastic Munch Museum. You won’t regret it. And maybe you’ll expiate your own demons.
Address: Tøyengata 53, 0578 Oslo Norway
Hours: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Entry: 120 Norweigan Krone, approximately $14
Pro tip: audio tours are available in Norwegian and in English, and a film on Edvard Munch’s life is shown throughout the day.
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