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Last fall, the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sprawling six-part bildungsroman, My Struggle, was published in English, with Edvard Munch’s life-affirming 1911 painting “The Sun” on the cover — Norway’s most illustrious artist as imprimatur for its most famous living author. Clocking in at 1,160 pages, it’s maybe no surprise that, even with Knausgaard’s international fame, it took seven years after Book Six was first published in Norwegian for it to appear in English.
Now, Knausgaard has a new book out in English this spring from Penguin Books, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch. It’s a felicitous pairing, since Knausgaard’s monomaniacal excavation of the self and soul probably finds its closest counterpart in the work of his countryman. And as he once told the New Yorker, My Struggle is “more like an art project, almost, than a novel.”
Likewise, Knausgaard’s newest book is in no sense a biography of Munch. We’re more than halfway through before getting details about the artist’s childhood, upbringing, and family tragedies. Instead, the book is a quest after what art is, what it’s for, and what artists are. Like most of Knausgaard’s work, it’s about him as much as his subject. That sounds self-indulgent, but Knausgaard possesses an uncanny magic for rendering mundane personal observations compelling. So did Munch.
Knausgaard opens with a painting of cabbages, a picture that deeply moves him. It’s a simply observed image, row after receding row of a field of blue-green cabbage. This 1915 painting — a mid-career work in the oeuvre of an almost pathologically prolific and long-lived artist — would seem to be “about” nothing more than cruciferous vegetables and maybe color, form, paint. But Knausgaard says of it: “I see death.”
He notes that, “Munch was around fifty years old when he painted Cabbage Field.” Knausgaard himself is about the same age when writing that sentence. Fifty being a pivotal time when thoughts lean toward the lesser span of life ahead. Cabbages equal death.
Munch is famous, of course, for his paintings of such dark themes. “The Scream” from 1893 serves as global icon for our current age of anxiety (complete with attendant emoji). His 1890s images of wavy lines describing symbolist angst are his signature works. But Munch died in 1944 at the age of 80 after making art for six decades, some 1,700 paintings and many times more graphic works, most of which are far from the expressionist turmoil of the 1890s. And yet a certain emotional electricity permeates even his most prosaic canvases. For Knausgaard, “Munch’s great gift lay in his ability to paint not only what his gaze took in, but also what that gaze was charged with.” This is a book primarily about looking — Knausgaard looking at Munch and what comes of it, from the biographical to the emotional to the formal.
Such looking reveals many connections between the two men, from a shared superhuman productivity, to obsession with the self, to a certain naïveté of style, to their similar tendencies and fortunes. “As a person,” Knausgaard writes, “Munch was emotional, nervous and self-absorbed, and as an artist he was lucky.” Munch had unlikely early success, both at home and abroad, and so did Knausgaard. The rapturous international reception of his autofiction had bets laid on him winning the Nobel Prize by his early forties.
Given such outsized success, Knausgaard presumably writes for a global audience, but this book is insistently Norwegian, offering few crutches for anyone unfamiliar with that country’s history and culture. So, while allusions to writers like Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun might be familiar to non-Norwegians, others like Alexander Kielland and Hans Jæger require Googling. Likewise, Knausgaard references many familiar artists of Munch’s time — van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon, Manet, Monet, and so on — but also tosses off the work of Norwegian painters like Adolph Tideman, Hans Gude, Christian Krohg, and Fritz Thaulow.
That such a small country produced towering figures like Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Grieg, Knut Hamsun, and Munch himself within a generation is remarkable. Knausgaard offers a glimpse into this influential and sometimes obscure history, though it’s mostly a male one. Of more than 40 artists named, only four are women, two of them contemporary artists Anna Bjerger and Vanessa Baird, whom Knausgaard consults with about Munch. The other two, Oda Krogh and Aase Nørregaard, Munch’s contemporaries among the Kristiania Bohemians of the 1880s, he refers to only in passing and doesn’t say they’re artists.
The translation by Ingvild Burkey is mostly excellent, though can sometimes be confusing. When Knausgaard says, “The titles Hunger and The Scream resemble each other,” they do in Norwegian (Sult and Skrik, respectively), but not in English. Translation also subtly, but significantly alters the English title. A direct translation from Norwegian reads something like, “So much longing on such a small surface” (rather than “in so little space” per the English). Surface and space are, particularly in painting, very different things. Munch’s flattening of pictorial space and his linear simplifications of forms to evoke feeling and emotion make the canvas more a surface — a kind of mirror of his inner self — than a window in which to look. This was Munch’s great artistic breakthrough, and at least one reason why his graphic work is so powerful. This breakthrough was also his break away from “Kroghian naturalism,” the prevailing style of 1880s Norway.
A small surface of canvas reveals Munch’s whole self (“the soul’s inner pictures” he called it) in a way the illusionistic space of naturalism never could. That’s why those cabbages are such killers. Munch paints in lifeblood. Knausgaard writes the same way. What Dwight Garner described in the New York Times as “transubstantiation — a kind of reverse tattooing — of blood into ink.”
So Much Longing ends with one of Munch’s last paintings, “Painter by the Wall” from 1942. Though Knausgaard notes that it has never been exhibited, by now it has, in the show he curated for the Munch Museum in Oslo last year. In Toward the Forest: Knausgaard on Munch, he assembled rooms of artwork rarely or never-before exhibited, most of it later works.
“Painter by the Wall,” like many of the pictures in Knausgaard’s show, is ostensibly a simple observation of the quotidian. But as Knausgaard points out, “It is difficult not to see the picture as an ironic comment on his [Munch’s] own life’s work.” Munch’s house painter reaches near the rectangle of a window with his brush, like any artist before his canvas. But what is that comment? Maybe nothing more than: This is how it is. “The world comes into being in our gaze all the time,” Knausgaard writes, more than enough reason for art-making.
In their work Knausgaard and Munch both linger on the gutting details of daily life that can sometimes bring us to our knees, saying in effect, I am here. This is what I see. This is how I see it. Look here. The male gaze, you might say, Knausgaard’s and Munch’s. But what a gaze, and what an invitation for us to look.
So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch by Karl Ove Knausgaard is now out from Penguin Books.