Edvard Munch’s Oslo

Edvard Munch
Munch chronicled Oslo's daily life, from dockworkers to the bourgeoisie. (c) Munch Museum

On the forested slopes above the Norwegian capital is a railed path whose sunset view inspired Edvard Munch’s famous vision. The “sky became blood,” he later wrote, and “I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.”

The nearby Ekeberg restaurant has a similar view over the Oslofjord. The setting recurs in other paintings, as the director of Oslo’s Munch Museum, Stein Olav Henrichsen, told Newsweek on the Ekeberg’s terrace on a recent summer evening. Munch worked from memory, even in front of a landscape, imbuing it with past perceptions and emotions— painting, he wrote, “not what I see but what I saw.” An anatomist of his psyche, he wrung lifelong motifs from personal experience. But his professed aim was to “dissect what is universal in the soul.”

Munch was barely 30 when he first painted The Scream in 1893. He lived to the age of 80. An exhibition of his 20th-century output, Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, has reached London’s Tate Modern on the heels of Sotheby’s sale in May of one of the four Scream paintings for $120 million—an auction record for an art work. With a show of graphic work in Edinburgh, and ambitious plans in Oslo for next year’s 150th anniversary of his birth, a Munch reappraisal is gathering steam, overturning the cliché of a symbolist steeped in Scandinavian gloom for a vision of Munch as an avatar of modernism.

The Nordic expressionist’s stance towards his home town of Kristiania— known since 1925 by its Viking name, Oslo, was ambivalent. Born further north in Loten, he was a baby when his family moved to the capital in 1864, and 5 years old when his mother died of tuberculosis. Pushing 40 before his paintings really sold, he endured vitriol for his “unfinished” daubs. Norway’s leading newspaper, Aftenposten, reviled his work as the “hallucinations of a sick mind”—a lacerating gibe since Munch’s sister Laura had schizophrenia.

Munch roamed between Paris and Berlin, and retreated to rustic studios around the Oslofjord. Recovering in a Copenhagen psychiatric clinic in 1908, he blamed the “town of enemies” for a breakdown fueled by alcoholism. Yet Munch, who never married, bequeathed all his works to the city of Oslo. He may have meant to protect them, after the German invasion of 1940, from the Nazified national government.

The Munch Museum opened in 1963, in a low, modern building in the eastern district of Toyen. Security was revamped in 2004 after masked gunmen stole two paintings—The Scream and Madonna—that took two years to recover. (Another Scream was stolen in 1994 from the National Museum.) Metal doors power open to reveal canvases on sliding racks. There are almost 18,000 prints, 4,500 drawings, 180 sketchbooks, plus letters and diaries, whose English translations launch online in October. Munch’s 1927 movie camera sits in a vault. With 40,000 items, the museum can display only a fraction of its collection. But advanced designs for a bigger home, near the 2008 Opera House on the waterfront, fell foul of municipal politics. A decision on a site is expected this fall.

Munch grew up in Grunerlokka on the poorer, eastern side of the Aker River. His father was a pious army doctor who treated the poor, and Munch lived with his family till his mid-20s in damp apartments without sanitation. Today the well-conserved quarter has delicatessens and tapas bars around Olaf Ryes Plass, a lovely leafy square with a busking accordionist and sky-blue trams. Munch painted it from his window, back when it was a new dormitory suburb for mill and factory workers on the riverbank, whose exhausted walk home he depicted. His stone-clad apartment buildings are all standing, including Fossveien 7, where his sister Sophie died of TB; and Schous Plass 1 (now above the Edvard coffee bar), where he painted The Sick Child.

Karl Johan Avenue, where Kristiania’s bourgeoisie paraded, was the site of Munch’s first studio, in the neogothic Pultosten (“Cream Cheese”) building. It is now a dark mustard, fronted by a statue of Munch’s early mentor, the painter Christian Krohg. The downstairs café was a headquarters of the city’s boheme, led by the nihilist Hans Jaeger, whose portrait hangs in the National Museum’s Munch room. In the Grand Café, another haunt, the far wall has a painting of the 1890s clientele by Krohg’s son, Per. White-bearded Krohg is center stage, while Munch sits with Jaeger. Henrik Ibsen—whose plays Munch designed sets for—skulks in a doorway. The area was handy for the dockside red-light district, where Munch sketched top-hatted gents leering at cabaret acts. But the bohemian round of adultery and jealousy, amid women’s emancipation, fueled anxious motifs in Munch’s The Frieze of Life series, with women as vampires and madonnas. In his portrayals of the avenue, pointillist parasols gave way to a faceless mob advancing in its finery.

After his breakdown, Munch’s interest in urban life revived. He made two monumental series. The Aula, or festival hall, at the University of Oslo, has huge canvases of a fisherman and a peasant mother—in line with his uncle’s Norwegian nationalism. But Munch also painted an astonishing fjord sunrise, reflecting his belief that people should remove their hats before art “as they do in church.” The series was for a competition in 1911, but controversy delayed its hanging for five years. In 1917 Richard Strauss stood entranced by The Sun before raising his baton, and Einstein lectured in its rays. After the trauma of last year’s massacre by Anders Breivik, a book of condolence was opened here.

Edvard Munch The Sun At the Tate Modern exhibit, The Sun (1910). (c) Munch Museum-Munch-Ellingsend Group-Dacs 2012

An unexpectedly joyous frieze was made for the women’s canteen of the Freia chocolate factory, just east of Grunerlokka, in 1923. The 12 bucolic scenes were reinstalled by Munch in 1934 in a wing overlooking a walled garden. This model canteen (now owned by Kraft) can be viewed by appointment. Employees in white hairnets still eat lunch under the frieze.

Munch died in 1944. His grave in Oslo is near Ibsen’s. The Nazis deemed his art degenerate, yet hijacked his funeral with swastikas. But the Aula paintings survived the occupation hidden in Norway’s silver mines. In a way, one could say that the return of The Sun sealed the liberation.

Maya Jaggi is a cultural journalist and critic in London. Her award-winning writing ranges from global literature to travel.