Magazine article Newsweek International

Edvard Munch's Oslo

Magazine article Newsweek International

Edvard Munch's Oslo

Article excerpt

Byline: Maya Jaggi

The love-hate relationship of a painter and his city.

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 cliche 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. …

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