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A ghostly Edvard Munch, smoke rising from a cigarette over his heart, holds the viewer’s gaze from a yellow strongbox. The outsize suitcase was the ingenious vehicle for “Self-Portrait with Cigarette” as the 1895 oil painting, too fragile to handle, made a rare tour across Norway. Its recent spell in the Arctic began a Munch-fest marking the 150th anniversary this December of the birth of Scandinavia’s most famous artist.
The blue-tinged, introspective portrait of the young bohemian has now returned home to the National Gallery in Oslo, where it forms part of Munch 150, the jubilee’s centrepiece. The joint retrospective by Oslo’s National and Munch museums builds on last year’s The Modern Eye at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Tate Modern. That show helped overturn the cliché of a neurotic steeped in Nordic gloom for a vision of a multimedia pioneer of modernism. Yet Munch 150, with 220 works on canvas (Munch on Paper follows in November), is the most comprehensive exhibition of his paintings ever, and reveals the astounding breadth and experimentalism of his 60-year career.
With so many in delicate condition – some damaged by Munch’s “horse cure”, whereby he left his pictures outside in all weathers – this exhaustive and exhilarating show cannot tour, and is unlikely to be repeated. It is documented, however, in Phil Grabsky’s film, Exhibition: Munch 150, which had its global premiere in June.
Munch was not yet 30 when he first painted “The Scream” – a version of which fetched almost $120m at Sotheby’s last year to become the most expensive artwork sold at auction. Yet he lived until 80. On his death in 1944, he owned many of his paintings, always loath to sell off his “children”. Never married, he bequeathed them to the city of Oslo, probably to shield his “degenerate” art from the Nazified national government. Some on show have been unearthed from the vaults of the Munch Museum in Tøyen, eastern Oslo, which opened in his centenary year. This year’s anniversary hastened a deal for an expanded site, after four years of political deadlock. In 2018 the museum will join Oslo’s new opera house on the Bjørvika waterfront, in a leaning glass tower by Spanish architect Juan Herreros.
Split between two venues, the exhibition roughly divides Munch’s 19th and 20th-century output. Mai Britt Guleng, one of four co-curators, says the decision not to split the work in 1908 – when Munch recovered in a Copenhagen clinic from an alcohol-fuelled breakdown – is a way of resisting simplistic biographical interpretations. “The Sick Child” (1885), for example, whose scratched-out reworking sparked uproar at his “unfinished” daubs, may reflect not only his sister’s death from tuberculosis but also memories of his father, a doctor, visiting the sick, and an era when 10,000 people a year were dying of tuberculosis in Norway. Munch returned to certain motifs throughout his life.
Munch arranged his paintings in fluid series, four of which have been reassembled. Most arresting is the “Frieze of Life”, as it was hung in Berlin in 1902. The 22 paintings build a pictorial narrative, from love’s flowering and passing, to anxiety and death, via jealousy, loneliness and illness. Among familiar icons are “Madonna”, “Vampire” and one of the four “Scream” paintings (the one stolen from the National Museum in 1994). Yet, shorn of their gold frames in a continuous white strip, their colours and emotions create what, for Munch, was a “symphonic effect” – and once again shock with their modernity.
He reused cherished landscapes to stage human dramas. The most famous is the “Scream”’s railed path in Ekeberg above the Oslofjord where, though the precise spot is uncertain, a viewing area is to be inaugurated in October. More pervasive is the boulder-strewn shoreline of Asgårdstrand, where he owned a fisherman’s cottage that is now a summer museum. As his biographer Sue Prideaux wrote in Behind the Scream (2005), Asgårdstrand was the “uninterrupted backcloth to the ‘Frieze of Life’.” The most breathtaking rooms in Munch 150 are those whose works evoke this coastline on midsummer nights, with the moon’s reflection a glowing test-tube.
A penetrating portraitist (of Ibsen, Strindberg, Nietzsche), Munch also scrutinised and staged himself. When he made his “Self-Portrait with Spanish Influenza” in 1919, it is unlikely that he had the flu. A devotee of theatre, he pictured himself as an Ibsen hero, and made sketches for Berlin director Max Reinhardt’s Hedda Gabler and Ghosts (Ghosts will have a rare staging with Munch’s sets in the UK this autumn).
Among satellite venues open to the public is the Oslo University Aula, with his “mural paintings” on sewn-together canvas. Its stolid fisherman and peasant mother are surpassed by the glorious fiord sunrise of the secular altar, “The Sun”. Nearby, the auctioneers Blomqvist, Munch’s art dealers, recreate his first show of prints in Norway in 1895 – including a Madonna framed by spermatozoa and a foetus. When Ibsen saw this “scandal exhibition” he assured Munch, “the more enemies, the more friends”.
In the Freia Chocolate Factory a frieze with 12 bucolic scenes from Asgårdstrand enlivens the model canteen in which it was installed in 1934, while Munch’s last winter studio at Ekely has been reconstructed as it was in 1938, his paintings in a high frieze. The site of erotic tensions between the ageing artist and his models, Ekely also inspired vigorous landscapes, including a “Starry Night” (1922-24) reminiscent of Van Gogh’s.
Munch was largely self-taught. But an hour’s drive from Oslo, at Modum, is the painting academy he attended in the 1880s. A sparkling display at the Blue Dye Works (cobalt mines that supplied Wedgwood) puts 19 of his rarely seen paintings alongside those of young contemporaries such as Kalle Løchen, the best friend whom Munch deemed “the most gifted painter we had”. Løchen committed suicide at Ekeberg the month before Munch showed his first “Scream”. Although biography cannot exhaust the art’s meaning, it’s an intriguing footnote.
‘Munch 150’, National and Munch museums, Oslo, to October 13; Aula, Freia Hall and Ekely are open weekends until October 13; Munch and Blomqvist, Tordenskiolds Gate, to August 21; Munch and his friends in Modum, Blaafarvevaerket, to September 22