Towards the Forest: Knausgård on Munch
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 152 pp., $45.00
In a career that spanned more than six decades, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944) produced thousands of works: woodcuts, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and restless, relentlessly experimental paintings on canvas. The Munch Museum in Oslo preserves, by its own count, “1,150 paintings, 17,800 graphic works, 7,700 drawings, 14 sculptures and numerous photographs taken by Munch himself,” all present in the artist’s studio when he died at eighty, and bequeathed to the city of Oslo in his will. For most of those sixty-plus years, Munch ran a successful business as a professional painter and graphic artist, exhibiting in, among other places, Berlin, Paris, Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne, Prague, Copenhagen, Zürich, Stockholm, Vienna, New York, and Pittsburgh. Between 1909 and 1914, shortly after his eight-month stay in a Danish psychiatric clinic, he created eleven monumental paintings for the Festival Hall of what was then known as the University of Kristiania. (In 1925, Kristiania took back its original Norwegian name, Oslo.) Elected to the avant-garde Berlin Secession in 1904, Munch was also awarded such accolades as the Norwegian Royal Order of Saint Olav (1908) and the French Legion of Honor (1934).
From the very beginning, his paintings excited both passion and controversy: his first solo exhibition in Berlin in 1892 closed after a tumultuous week of fistfights between admirers and detractors. Forty-five years later, in 1937, Adolf Hitler declared Munch’s painting “degenerate” and forced German museums to eliminate eighty-two of his works from their collections. In Norway itself, however, the National Socialist puppet government of Vidkun Quisling paid for a state funeral when Munch died in 1944. His stature within his own country was too great to do otherwise.
Clearly, Edvard Munch was never simply a Norwegian artist. His appeal, like his own life, has always been both local and cosmopolitan at the same time. He may be best known internationally for his anguished paintings of the 1890s, especially for the group of works (two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph) he created between 1893 and 1910 and called, in German (he was exhibiting in Berlin), Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). In Norway, on the other hand, he is at least as well known, and deservedly so, for his monumental paintings in the Festival Hall, dedicated to the sun and its pale, oblique Nordic light.
Two recent exhibitions, one just closed in Oslo, one just opening in New York, suggest the broad range of this complicated but consistently capable artist. This summer, the Munch Museum, looking ahead to its move from excessively cramped quarters in the hillside suburb of Tøyen to a new high-rise facility on Oslo’s rapidly developing eastern waterfront, opened its vast storerooms to an unusual curator: the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. Long beguiled by the artist, about whom he has written and spoken with rare acuity, Knausgård accepted the invitation to prepare an exhibition designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, creators of the Oslo Opera House and the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Like Munch himself, both the author of the six-volume memoir My Struggle and the Oslo- and New York–based firm that creates “architecture, landscapes, interiors and brand design” are local figures with an international following.*
Most of the 143 paintings, sculptures, and graphic works in “Towards the Forest: Knausgård on Munch” had never been shown before, hence there was nary a Scream in sight. The exhibition’s title and the titles of its sections—“Light and Landscape,” “The Forest,” “Chaos and Energy,” and “The Others”—presented Munch as a marvelous painter of nature, the artist who created those sun-soaked paintings for the University Festival Hall and returned to the gnarled elms of Ekely, his estate on the outskirts of Oslo, as faithfully, and often as colorfully, as Claude Monet returned to his haystacks and Paul Cézanne to the lavender-scented slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Munch purchased Ekely, a former plant nursery, in 1916, at the height of his wealth and renown, and spent the rest of his life working amid its greenery and wintry snowscapes, captivated by nature’s variations on a theme that also continued to haunt him on a human level: the frieze of life. (The Frieze of Life was the name he gave one of his most famous sequences of paintings.)
Knausgård, whose second novel, A Time for Everything, is set within a gorgeously described Norwegian forest, gravitates naturally to this Munch, “the man who craved colour and embraced the world, and who loved painting.” “Throughout his life,” Knausgård reminded visitors to the exhibition, “throughout all of his various phases, [Munch] also painted pictures full of light and colour, harmonious and beautiful landscapes, bare coastal rock formations, the ocean, lawns, trees and flowers, and later in life, humans at work, in fields or in gardens.” It is a world of poppies, verdant lawns, swimming boys doing the breaststroke in the deep blue sea, white-clad women dancing in the lemon-colored summer sunlight. The woodcut series called Towards the Forest I (1897), used for the catalog cover, sets an embracing couple, a nude woman and a clothed man, against a backdrop of tall pines, the trees and figures competing for attention with the prominent grain of the woodblock itself. The colors Munch chose for his first version of the print present a ravishing contrast of peach tones for the woman’s flesh and the forest floor and a shimmering alternation of verdigris and teal blue for the background. Of this woodblock image, Knausgård writes:
The figures are strangely awkward, almost as though drawn by a child, yet the picture has a roughness to it, something rudimentary and untamed, which juxtaposes the awkward aspect, making it tender and frail. So much longing on such a small surface. And so much energy, so much expressiveness in the forest, because the fact that the picture is carved into a woodblock and then printed on paper is so apparent. This was something Munch worked at, the materiality of the pictures he made, the pictures were not only an image of something, but also something in themselves, an object in the world.
The haunting phrase “so much longing on such a small surface” appears again as the title of Knausgård’s most recent book, Så mye lengsel på så liten flate, a collection of essays about Munch’s art published to coincide with the opening of “Towards the Forest.” In keeping with the exhibition’s emphasis on light, color, and landscape, the first picture he examines is Munch’s 1915 painting of a cabbage patch.
Beneath woodblock prints like Towards the Forest and Mystical Shore (1897), and Knausgård’s response to them, we can sense the specifically Nordic way in which wood signifies both wilderness and civilization, from the sleek hulls of Viking ships to the shipshape compactness of medieval stave churches—a profound connection with the forest that also underpins Grimms’ fairy tales but is increasingly distant from much of the modern world. It is a link that Greece and Italy, for example, lost in antiquity, when the great trees fell to shipbuilders and charcoal burners, that the Amazon basin is losing now, and that desert societies never had. It is impossible to understand Munch, really, without including the trees that dominate this exhibition with their greens and browns, whether straight-up pines or ancient elms with twisted trunks.
Knausgård is equally perceptive in picking up the subtle traces of life in Munch’s paintings of German farmland under snow:
The reason Munch found this landscape [Snow Landscape, Thuringia, 1906] worthy of five pictures, I assume has to do with the snow, with the fact that the layer of snow is so thin that the colours shine through. A field leads into the depth of the picture, the white is broken up by reddish, brownish and green stripes. In the background is a yellow area with a little house, and behind it a dark green area that must be a forest. The sky above is a dirty white, almost yellow. None of this says very much, for the fact of the matter is that the picture lives. It has a resonance, it has fluctuations, it is almost like music. The resonance is what the emotions relate to and what lifts them, just as music can lift emotions.
Knausgård also gravitates to paintings of the sun, from a burst of pale yellow rays mirrored in a fjord (The Sun, 1910–1913) to the low-lying, piercing rays that penetrate through the trees to light up the delicate pastels of a luminous white plow horse and sea-green shrubbery in The Pathfinder (1911–1912). Munch quickly turned the reflection of the moon on the waters of sea and fjord into a personal cipher, a dotted “i” signifying pure mystery, as in the woodblock print Mystical Shore and in many of his paintings.
There was also room in “Towards the Forest” for the more familiar Munch of claustrophobic rooms and tormented relationships, not to mention the graphic violence of Sigurd Slembe (1909). “Sigurd the Noisy” (this is the meaning of Slembe) was a twelfth-century pretender to the throne of Norway, whose life and gruesome death figured in Norse sagas and in an immensely popular trilogy by the Norwegian dramatist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, the 1903 Nobel laureate in literature. Munch has set the would-be king’s atrocious execution in a green field of frenzied brushwork, a glorious sea view marred by the sight of the spread-eagled Sigurd, bleeding from the first blows of the hammer-axe that mark only the beginning of his ordeal. A few years later, Munch sketched out a terrifying Blood Waterfall (1915–1916).
The last section of the exhibition, “The Others,” displayed a series of portraits in paint and print, including a parting view of the young Munch himself in 1888, the surface of the portrait scraped and distressed to call attention, perhaps, to its status as an object. The latest work on view, a lush summer scene of a man painting the side of a house, was created in 1942. Knausgård lingers over the image, one of the last Munch ever made:
Just a sloppily rendered everyday scene, bounded on every side by insignificance.
Was this where sixty-four years of painting experience had brought him?
In a way it was. Munch knew very well how to paint a man on a ladder with photographic realism and anatomical precision…he also knew how to paint a man in a garden on a summer day impressionistically, and he presumably also knew how he should paint a man on a ladder in the manner of Munch. When he didn’t do this, it was because none of the techniques could help him to achieve what he was after. They would, on the contrary, be in his way.
A bemused Knausgård suggests a possible answer to what Munch was after in that garden in the summer of 1942, with the Nazis in charge of his country and a new world war underway:
Knowing that Munch was seventy-eight years old when he painted it, and that he was Norway’s undisputed great artist, for many the very personification of The Artist, it is difficult not to view the picture as an ironic commentary on his own work. The man on the ladder is painting a house, Munch is painting a picture—what exactly is the difference?
In the midst of horror in the world outside, the elderly painter, no stranger himself to horror and turmoil, captures a moment of pure, sunlit joy, it, too, a rightful part of existence.
Throughout his career, Munch experimented incessantly with technique, applying paint to untreated canvas, diluting his pigments with turpentine so that they ran down the canvas in colored rivulets, scraping away impasto to create a rough, textured surface. He left his work outdoors, where rain and bird droppings did their worst, and was so frugal with paint that he would rather apply a daub of random color somewhere on the work than simply clean it off his brush. We can see how he began his canvases with clean, clear colors and kept on painting even when his brush had become loaded with a mud-colored mix. He was a messy painter, forever on the lookout for a better way to capture a mood or a moment.
The artist who appears in the Met Breuer’s exhibition “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” is a more familiar figure than the Munch revealed in Oslo by Knausgård’s “Towards the Forest.” Rather than the colors of the open air, we have confined interiors bursting out in rebellious shades of yellow, orange, and red (although these intense shades are traditional for Norwegian houses), and the selection of fifty-one paintings puts all the artist’s early angst in full view. Many of these images are well-known landmarks in Munch’s career, from the delicate pastel blues and variegated whites of Morning (1884), one of the first paintings he ever exhibited in public, to The Sick Child (1896), his first great success, to his early Self-Portrait with Cigarette (1895), with its vapor-thin paint and its abraded surfaces, to the seductive black-haired siren he called, with bitter irony, Madonna (1894).
Munch’s childhood was marked by an agonizing series of losses—his parents, his sister (the original Sick Child)—and by several of his own brushes with death (to which Death in the Sick Room of 1893 and several related paintings may refer). Inheritance (1897–1899) expresses the artist’s anxious awareness of his family’s legacy of madness and consumption: a spectral baby, presumably Munch himself, lies listlessly in the lap of a tubercular woman who spits blood into a handkerchief, accidentally (and lethally) spattering her infant’s pallid flesh with crimson flecks.
Sick Mood at Sunset: Despair (1892) anticipates The Scream, the first version of which was painted the following year: a man in a fedora stands at precisely the same spot on the Ekeberg promontory overlooking Oslofjord, as a setting sun dyes the sky blood red, catching the planes of the man’s face and outlining his hat and his white starched collar in a ruddy glow. Rather than looking out at us like the anguished protagonist of The Scream, this desolate figure, oblivious to the glorious natural halo that encloses him, slumps over a railing, his eyeless gaze directed toward the Old City, the eastern part of Kristiania (incidentally, not far from where Juan Herreros’s new L-shaped Munch Museum will rise in 2020). The thick, agitated brushwork turns the despondent man’s psychological isolation into a separation in space as well as in feeling, dividing him from the other passersby on the scenic overlook and from the fjord and city beneath them. Munch traced his best-known image to an experience on the Ekeberg:
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.
Munch thus presents his shrieking figure, like his own art, as a lightning rod for all of nature rather than a person imprisoned in private grief.
In a different palette, the paintings on display in New York show the same restless search after expressive technique. An extensive collection of self-portraits takes Munch from the beginnings of his career to the end of his life, through an ambitious youth, an anguished middle age, and what must have been a relatively peaceful seniority. The opaque paint and distressed surface of an early Self-Portrait (1886) project almost the same ravaged glow as a Pompeiian painting or an ancient icon, but rather than looking out directly at us as ancient figures do, the very young Munch casts a sidelong glance, supremely diffident. A few years later, he has assumed the trappings of adulthood: a mustache and a cigarette, whose swirling smoke, like his jacket, is rendered in layers of paint so thin that the canvas peeks through. Yet another portrait has him leaning on his hand, probably inspired by Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890) by Vincent van Gogh, in which the subject assumes the same position, but Munch renders his own figure in transparent strokes rather than van Gogh’s dense spots of color.
Munch’s troubled dealings with women feature prominently in many of his most angst-ridden paintings, although the Copenhagen clinic where he spent much of 1908 and 1909 blamed his psychiatric problems on alcohol. In Berlin, where he lived from 1892 to 1896, his drinking partners at the Black Piglet tavern famously included August Strindberg (of whom he made two splendid portraits, a painting and a lithograph, before they quarreled and split). His love affairs all ended badly, if inspirationally for his art, and two self-portraits with a model from 1919–1921, with their evident erotic charge, suggest in radiant tones of yellow and indigo blue how this solitary man found companionship in his later years.
The Met Breuer’s exhibition catalog includes a useful essay by Mille Stein on Munch’s technique, which will help visitors to understand the extent and significance of his lifelong experimentation in various media. Patricia Berman’s study of Munch as a canny businessman who managed his own career for most of his life calls into question his conventional image as a tormented neurasthenic—even during his eight-month stay in Dr. Jacobson’s psychiatric clinic, he was managing his own exhibition schedule. Allison Morehead and Richard Shiff seem to be addressing a strictly American academic audience with their ritual bows to the likes of Michel Foucault and Clement Greenberg, neither of whom had much to say on Edvard Munch. It is not surprising, really, that a Norwegian would fall outside Greenberg’s epic progress of modern art, when Quisling was a recent memory, and all roads were destined to lead to New York. Morehead refers on several occasions to the witty Reinhold Heller, author of a 1984 study of Munch’s life and work, who would no doubt have written a sparkling essay, and one of wider appeal.
Instead, for a museum ostensibly dedicated to the people of New York in the same spirit that the Munch Museum is dedicated to the people of Oslo, it is once again Karl Ove Knausgård, in a preface written especially for this catalog, and this much different collection of paintings, who strikes the most resonant note:
If you have ever stood in a room in front of a painting by Munch, or Van Gogh or Rembrandt for that matter, you will know that part of the painting’s magic is that it brings together its time and yours, its place and yours, and there is comfort in that, because even the distance that is inherent in loneliness is suspended in that moment.
Comfort, magic, bringing together—and that glorious yellow. These, too, not just the anguish, dance thrillingly through Edvard Munch’s frieze of life.
“Knausgård” is the Swedish spelling of the writer’s name (he now lives in Sweden); his previous books have been published outside Scandinavia with the spelling “Knausgaard.” ↩