It’s always heartening to see an art historical institution take a big step into the modern era. This month, the Munch Museum in Oslo made some 7,600 of Edvard Munch’s drawings available online, including the Museum’s entire holdings, as well as drawings from other public and private collections. The online catalogue, free to all, represents a tremendous feat of logistics, and features drawings that go back as far as the artist’s childhood, sketchbooks, studies of tools, coins, and keys that demonstrate Munch’s dedication as a disciplined draftsman, and watercolors of buildings that were some of the first bodies of work developed by the artist in his youth. Overall, the debut of the catalogue represents a massive effort on the part of the Museum, which dedicated to the life and work of the Symbolist painter.
“More than 90% of the drawings are in the museum’s own collection,” said Magne Bruteig, Senior Curator for Prints and Drawings, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “All of these had basic registrations, but they were of course carried from the storage and given a new inspection and an extended registration. Many privately owned drawings had previously been delivered to the museum for registration, some new drawings were brought to us, some were inspected by us in other collections — for drawings abroad we had to rely on the registrations made by the owners.”
The Munch Museum’s staff photographers digitally photographed all drawings in the collections, as well as all drawings brought in to join the project. In a few instances, old black-and-white photographs or color slides had to be converted to a digital format. Munch’s works are now in the public domain, but the Museum had to seek permission to use photographs not taken by their in-house photographers, and in a few cases pay fees for use. The majority of private owners lent their images free of charge.
While there was no particular motivation for the specific timing of the project, Bruteig acknowledges that the “time was ripe,” in terms of the pervasiveness of online media, and also sees the effort as tapping potential that could not have been realized in other ways.
“The fact that the multitude of drawings made a paper edition practically impossible, and an online publication the obvious choice, also made it possible to reach a much wider audience,” Bruteig said. “In addition to appealing to art lovers of all kinds, it is also our hope that scholars around the world may take a greater interest in this part of Munch’s artistic output, so that his drawing may receive more art historical attention.” The project also enabled the kind of crowd-sourced information that occasionally redeems the internet for some of its less pleasant mob tendencies, as Facebook users were able to identify a mysterious building in one of his drawings, that the museum was unable to pin down.
“We could not figure out what building this drawing represented,” said Bruteig, “so I posted the image on a Facebook group named ‘Old photographs from Oslo’ and asked if anybody could help us identify the building. And they could; it was in fact the rear side of the Parliament, before the new extension. We also had no idea of the dating of the drawing, but after studying lots of old photographs, we came up with a qualified guess, as you can read in the comment.”
The newly-digitized collection is full of interesting Easter eggs, oddities, and details of the artist’s personal life, as captured in his drawings. An ardent dog-lover, Munch nonetheless had an intense feud with a neighbor over a dog name Rolle, kept in an adjoining yard, and commemorated the creature in a large number of unsettling drawings and lithographs. This is just one of countless discoveries awaiting Munch novices or acolytes who go scrying through the collection.
“The goal is to make Munch’s art known and easily accessible to as many people as possible,” said Bruteig, “and since the majority of the drawings had never been exhibited or published in any way, it has been of special importance to reveal this ‘hidden treasure.’ By including not only finished drawings, but also small sketches and preparatory works of all kinds, it has also been a purpose to let people have the possibility to study his working methods and his artistic process.”
Munch enthusiasts rejoice! And also clear your weekend — there is much Munch for you to munch on.