Report from… Oslo
How to present an exhibition of Edvard Munch so that it will arouse in viewers the sense of seeing his work for the first time: This was the challenge the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård set himself when asked to curate this year’s summer exhibition at the Munch Museum in Oslo. “My guiding question,” he said, “was whether it was possible to look at a Munch today, and not know what to think.” Being a literary person, he compares it to the emotional experience of reading Dostoevsky for the first time and not being able to tell whether the work was good or bad.
But it’s not only that The Scream is possibly the artwork best known to most people, endlessly adapted for use in designs and jokes, a solid fixture in the world’s visual lexicon – and on its heels, iconic images like Puberty, Madonna, The Dance of Life, The Sick Child. It is that Munch’s distinctive “handwriting” – the fluid lines and simplified, flowing shapes, the jelly-fish landscapes, the bleeding reds and brooding indigos – make him immediately recognizable in a way a writer can’t be.
Wanting to recreate the sense of astonishment of a first encounter, Knausgård has brought together works that have seldom or never been shown. He had an extraordinary amount to choose from. Munch bequeathed his work to the municipality of Oslo after his death in 1944: 1100 paintings, 4000 drawings, 18,000 prints, several pieces of sculpture and “other objects”. This last category includes some of the more surprising exhibits, including a ragged, half completed figure, reclining on the floor, life-size and as elongated as Munch himself.
Knausgård brings a narrative approach to curating, but also the approach of a creative writer who understands the intermingling of an artist’s work and life: that painting can be like a living membrane between the artist’s inner life and worldly experience. There is a lot to read on the walls between the galleries, quotes from both Munch and Knausgård, some of it illuminating, some of it cringingly trite. I am one of those who hasn’t taken on Knausgård’s six volume autobiographical novel, while respectfully acknowledging that it must be a rewarding read, having won a list of prizes and been translated into at least fifteen languages. The style that prevented me from continuing with ‘My Struggle’ – a bit macabre, drawn out, stating the obvious – is evident in ‘Towards the Forest’, but there is a sincere desire to discover and get close to Munch that turns it into a triumph.
The exhibition takes its title from a series of woodcuts of a naked woman and formally dressed man in dark hat and suit, arms entwined and leaning towards each other as they walk away from us into a dark mass of trees. Each gallery offers a new, unpredictable hang, and there are surprises in the work, which is sometimes unfinished, experimental, or unresolved. But sometimes, just because a painting hasn’t been taken beyond the raw and naked sketch, it is all the stronger. In just a few brushstrokes on an offcut of canvas, Jealousy expresses agony in the close-up of a head and behind it, the flirting couple that has caused it.
Starting with a huge dazzling sun at the entrance, the viewer is led into and out of forests, literally and metaphorically – into psychic darkness and out again into tranquility. The sense of extremities of nature and seasons, and probably feelings, seems very Norwegian. Munch, of course, projects his emotion onto nature, but is probably more deeply affected by it than viewers who do not live with such startling seasonal changes. The exhibition takes us from sunny apple orchards into a place where trees writhe and contort themselves, branches stretching like arms or leaning backwards as if in a yoga pose. One gnarled tree looks as if it’s standing on its head.
Where there are people in the landscape, they seem to be overwhelmed, even bombarded by the vigor of nature. The formally dressed man, last seen going to the forest, is now with a girl in a white dress in an orchard where apples fly about them like missiles. The last gallery feels forest-like but is actually a hall of larger than life-size portraits – a line-up of famous characters, commissions, and family members, each one standing alone. They seem to bear down on the viewer like a phalanx of tall trees. If Munch’s trees can express human emotions, his human subjects can be wooden and impassive. Some are better paintings than others, but in each the environment exudes a vitality that is lacking in the characters. It’s as if they were oppressed and exhausted by the space around them.
Knausgård has said that he sees art as a search for solace. ‘I have this place where I’m free, and that’s in writing. And if there is a way that I can identify with Munch, it must be in this. He must have felt that paintings could be a shelter for him.’
Towards the Forest: Knausgård on Munch was at the Munchmuseet, Oslo, June 5 to August 10, 2017