Norway rediscovers Edvard Munch as an artist of global importance

A major exhibition opens today in Norway on the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth. The artist's most famous work, "The Scream," recently sold for $119.9 million.

© Munch Museum/Munch Ellingsen Group/BONO
'The Girls on the Bridge,' 1901

International art circles may have been shocked when “The Scream,” by Norwegian modernist painter Edvard Munch, set a record at a public auction in Sotheby’s last year by fetching $119.9 million.

But a new exhibit launched today in Oslo celebrating the 150th  year anniversary of his birth – the most comprehensive collection ever – reveals how the Norwegian icon was very much underrated and is even stirring up a national reawakening.

“I think it was an interesting discovery for Norwegians to see the two last years’ enormous international attention because of the sale of the Munch in New York and the fantastic number of people that we had at the exhibitions in Frankfurt, Bremen, Paris, and London,” says Stein Olav Heinrichsen, Munch Museum director.

“My impression is that Norwegians have taken Munch as part of their natural surroundings a bit for granted, and now they discover that this is a very important artist, not only for themselves, but also for the rest of the world. This gives them an even higher kick of national pride and maybe also national identity.”

The first part of the two-venue exhibition at the National Gallery assembles half of the more than 270 works shown, chronicling the early part of his career (1882-1903). The second part of the exhibit at the Munch Museum covers his later period from 1904 until his death in 1944.

The public initially did not understand his expressionist style and dark themes depicting sexuality, madness, and drugs. His 1892 exhibit in Berlin was canceled after just a few days for being too provocative. And Freia chocolate factory owner Johan Throne Holst – who commissioned a decorative wall frieze in 1892 for the employee canteen in Oslo – ordered Munch to redo the works by painting in the missing windows and chimneys on the houses.

“[Munch] pushed the borders of the imagination of what art is,” said Hadia Tajik, Norway’s culture minister, at a press preview on Friday. “People were at first shocked and said it was unfinished, but that’s what made him so great.”

“You think of Munch as something you had to go through [in school],” adds Heidi Thon, VisitOSLO marketing director. “For Norwegians, culture is skiing and going to the cabin, not fine art. That is changing now. Art has become part of Norwegian society." 

Today the artist is part of the Holy Trinity of Norwegian national identity: Munch, composer Edvard Grieg, and playwright Henrik Ibsen. Munch’s paintings evoke many national romantic feelings for Norwegians with their depictions of moody dark forests, pastoral scenes, and seaside images of children swimming outside his summer cottage at Åsgårdstrand.

They also capture a tragic time when historians record that thousands died annually of tuberculosis, including his sister, who modeled for his painting “The Sick Child.” His paintings also had an anxiety-ridden quality, famous for their use of putrid greens and harsh orange colors. 

Running until Oct. 13, the comprehensive exhibit of Munch’s works runs in parallel with exhibits in other niche venues around Oslo. It includes a rare private collection of Munch’s earliest works dating from his times as a self-taught painter in the 1880s at the Open Air Academy Friluftsakademiet  the first artist’s colony of its kind in Norway – at the cobalt works Blaafarveværket in Modum. He spent the autumn there by Haugfossen waterfalls honing his skills together with other great Norwegian painters, Frits Thaulow and his best friend Kalle Løchen, whose suicide is believed by some to be the source of Munch’s inspiration for “The Scream.”

As part of the 150 Jubilee, the Munch Museum will feature the famous painting versions of “Madonna” and “The Scream” that were stolen in 2004. Another version of “The Scream,” stolen from the National Gallery in 1994, will also be shown. He often made several variations of the same work, sometimes decades apart.

However, all the works will soon be getting a new home following a landmark decision last week that resolves the controversial question over where to locate a new national Munch Museum.

Oslo city politicians have been wrangling for years over the current one, which has been falling into disrepair and was cut down 40 percent in exhibition size after the art heist forced them to close off parts of the east and west wing for security measures. Some had argued for building a new museum at its current location in Tøyen in the hopes of reviving the neighborhood.

In a last-hour decision, a majority instead chose the leaning glass tower design “Lambda” by Spanish architects Herreros Arquitectos to be placed at Bjørvika, next to the new National Opera House overlooking the Oslo fiord. When complete in 2018, the new museum will be four times the size as the current Munch Museum.

“It was high time,” said Audun Eckhoff, National Museum director. “This is possibly the greatest birthday gift Munch could have dreamed of.”

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