OSLO — It’s everywhere in Oslo: greeting you at the airport and hanging in the train station, on billboards and in gift shops. It is perhaps the most famous art image of the twentieth century, and Norway is celebrating what would be the 150th birthday of its creator. Even when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted the first version of The Scream in 1893, it was a much-discussed and mysterious image; in 2013, everyone with access to a computer knows it.
A major Munch 150 exhibition, spread between The Munch Museum and the National Museum in Oslo, aims to create a fuller story of the artist. The official exhibition image is not “The Scream” but a later self-portrait from 1926: a 63-year-old Munch scowls out at the viewer, his face a swirl of fauvist color shards as he stands near his country home. It is not a well-known work, and the exhibition argues that he was no one-trick artist.
Munch was well-traveled, famously handsome, a collaborator of Henrik Ibsen and friend of August Strindberg. His life followed many tropes of the Romantic artists: his 1892 exhibition in Berlin was so scandalous it was cancelled after a week (and forty years later, the Nazis found his work among the “degenerates“), during a breakup with his girlfriend a bullet shattered his left hand, and in 1908 he had a breakdown and institutionalized himself for eight months.
Munch knew from a young age he was destined to be a great artist, dropping out of technical school to study painting. In 1885, he traveled to Paris on a grant, where he absorbed and mimicked the styles of the post-Impressionists. His portraits and scenes of Paris draw from Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Degas and others. Had he continued down this path he would have been a notable footnote: a Norwegian answer to the French movement. And though he would use and revisit impressionistic techniques, something unique and dark emerged in his work in the 1880s, when he aimed to look “…behind the smiling faces” of the crowds around him to “the pale corpses that endlessly wend their tortuous way down the road that leads to the grave.”
Munch’s most well-known works come from the 1890s: loose, almost unfinished brushwork, faces with expressive, pool-like eyes, and dark colors create scenes full of mystery, dread, and passion. His early magnum opus, The Frieze of Life: A Poem about Life, Love and Death, included “The Scream,” “Madonna,” and “The Vampire”; like Rodin and his Gates of Hell, Munch would revisit and incorporate individual works for the cycle.
The Frieze is full of moonlit rituals and ghoulish faces, ambiguous scenes open to wide interpretations. In “The Dance of Life,” couples sway by the shore, but off to the left one monstrous man appears to feast on a woman in white, while a woman in black stands somber and alone. The work captures many of the tensions in Munch’s work, between bourgeois comfort and anxiety, city and nature, couples and solitude.
Through the early 1900s, Munch’s work would alternate between images of death and lust and sunny, warm landscapes. In 1911, he was selected to decorate the hall of the University of Oslo, which offers a striking counterpoint to the Frieze. The works are so massive — some up to 13 x 25 feet — Munch created an outdoor studio to paint them. The central work in the cycle is a brilliant sun rising over a fjord, which symbolized for Munch “the specifically Norwegian, and the universally human.” Though of a vastly different tone, the appeal of “The Sun” is also at work in “The Scream.” Munch’s genius was to take the particular — the Norwegian landscape, his internal turmoil — and allegorize it into the universal.
When Munch died, he left his works — some 1,000 paintings, and thousands more prints and watercolors, to the municipality of Oslo. It was an act of national pride, and one that made this celebration possible. Unfortunately, it is also why his works are not seen more outside of Norway; because most are fragile, they rarely travel, and when they do it is only a few at a time.
The world knows Munch the angst-filled romantic; it takes a trip to Oslo to find the sunny nationalist, the detached elder, the peripatetic intellectual. But now that New York has its own Scream and this exhibition attracts international attention, we have a chance to complicate our view of this painter, who showed us both the horrific and luminous.
The Munch 150 anniversary exhibition continues through October 13 at the Munch Museum (Tøyengata 53, 0578 Oslo, Norway), National Museum (Universitetsgata 13, 0164 Oslo, Norway), and other locations. Images of Munch’s work, along with more information about the artist, are available on the exhibition website.