Oslo goes high on ‘Old Munch’

REDISCOVERY OF A GENIUS: Munch used controversies and debates to his own advantage to draw attention to his work. One of the four versions of “The Scream.”  

“Look at that painting on the wall. It looks like a woman. What a poor work. What was on my mind that day? Maybe the effect of too much whisky?” An ashen-faced puppet version of an old and emaciated Edvard Munch, Norway’s most celebrated painter and arguably one of the most iconic painters of the modern era, is made to mouth these lines by the skilled ventriloquist Ulrike Quade in an excerpt from her production “Artist” at the inauguration of the year-long celebrations of “ Munch 150.” The artist (born 1863), is known across continents for his angst-ridden works like “The Scream,” “The Sick Child” and “The Day After” and his 150th birth anniversary has been converted into a national and international event by Norway.

However, the rather formal and carefully constructed hour-long opening event on June 1 at the majestic premises of the Oslo’s University Aula, was marked by equal quaffs of reverence and irreverence. The venue itself was monumental and austere, with 11 paintings on the wall of the University hall, each ten to twelve feet tall, painted by Munch (pronounced “muhnk”) in 1917. Adding to the sombre and ceremonial mood was the royal presence of the dapper Crown Prince Haakon. There were brilliant interludes of short classical compositions by Richard Strauss and Edvard Grieg by young musicians. The speeches were all short, sharp and witty.

Two shows

The anniversary is marked by two creatively curated retrospective exhibitions (cumulatively being classified as “the greatest ever Munch Exhibition”) distributed between The National Gallery (works between 1881 and 1904) and the Munch Museum (works from 1905 till his death in 1944), incorporating some 260 choice exhibits from an oeuvre comprising over 5,000 works in media ranging from oil, pastels, water colours, sketches and litho-stone prints. There are future seminars and major auxiliary exhibitions of his works on paper as well his graphics planned over the next months. However, the highlight of the present event turned out to be the public announcement of a new multi-billion dollar Munch Museum, to house his entire body of work.

Slated to be ready by 2017, the Museum will be designed by the Spanish architect Juan Herreros, and will come up next to the already futuristic building of the National Opera at a cost of Norwegian Kroner 1.7 Billion (over €200 Million). While the decision came after several months of acrimony and controversy over the shifting of the museum, with some die-hards resisting it till the end, no artist could have desired a more fitting and grander birthday gift.

A pioneer

The most interesting intervention at the opening came from the Minister of Culture, Hadia Tajik, who declared the exhibition open. At 29, this Labour politician of Pakistani origin has an assured air. In a short inaugural speech, followed by sustained applause, she claimed there are several things we can learn from this artist whose artistic career began around 1880. For one, she said, artists who really make a great difference are those who succeed in reconfiguring art by “pushing the borderlines of art imagination.” When we write art-history backwards and in hindsight, we arrive at Munch and recognise in him a pioneer of modern art who, even today, continues to redefine how we understand art in our times.

But more provocatively, and with more than a hint of a progressive outlook on arts, Ms Tajik pointed out that while Munch was an “anxious man” all his life, he was quite convinced that “a scandal or two (or more) certainly helps an artist’s life.” While, even at the turn of the 19th century, Munch was an artist who was both conscious of his reputation and his own public image, he used “controversies” and “debates” to his own advantage “to draw attention to his work. In a way, this made indifference to his work quite impossible,” she claimed. Tongue-in-cheek, she concluded, “Munch might not have been entirely unhappy at the current controversy as regards to where to locate the proposed new museum for housing his works.”

Four years of planning

The Munch 150 exhibition, jointly curated by internationally renowned Munch experts Jon-Ove Steihaug, Mai Britt Guleng, Nils Ohlsen and Ingebjorg Ydstie, is a product of almost four years of research and planning. With collaboration and cooperation from several international galleries and individual collectors, the exhibition which will run till December this year, is likely to bring hundreds and thousands of the arts cognoscenti flocking to Oslo — particularly because of the curators’ decision not to “travel” the exhibition.

So those who need to experience the particular impact of Munch on the development of modernism in art — said to be of equal significance to that of Gauguin and van Gogh — will have to make a pilgrimage to Oslo. Norway, in the late 19th century, was a centre of intellectual and artistic ferment. Playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Auguste Strindberg were tearing apart old notions of what was suitable for stage. The idea of gender equality was already being discussed with some force, which made Norway the first modern nation (in 1913) to give women constitutional guarantee to vote. Just across, in Germany, Freidrich Nietzsche was making nihilism and existential angst fashionable and Sigmund Freud had already opened out vast continents of the inner human mind.

Behind ‘The Scream’

It was in the cusp of this intellectual and social turmoil that Edvard Munch, who spent time both in Paris and Berlin, set about with his canvas and brush to explore basic emotions like anxiety, desire, fear of death, love, loneliness, melancholy and so on, even as he seemed to take a misogynist position with respect to man-woman relations and issues of sexuality.

In the copious diary notes he made, Munch has recurring references to the incomparable Russian novelist of inner depths, Dostoevsky, who died in 1881, just as Munch was setting out as a full-time painter. The artist himself went through intense bouts of depression and suicidal feelings and was in and out of asylums — as were some of his own siblings and friends. It is this sort of personal and intellectual condition that led to his painting (between 1893 and 1910) four versions of “The Scream,” which has now almost become popular kitsch, with references and nods to it in all kinds of contemporary representation on T-shirts, in comic strips, horror movies, spoofs and graphic art works.

Of course, Munch’s reputation has not been hurt at all by the May 2, 2012 Sotheby’s, New York, auction in which the hammer price, including the buyer’s premium of his “The Scream,” went for a stunning $120 million, leaving far behind some fabulous Picassos in the price race. In fact, another axis of Munch’s reputation lies in his being perhaps the most “stolen” artist of the 20th century with some of his works, including “The Scream” and “Madonna” being stolen again and again — only to be, equally sensationally, recovered and restored eventually.

Oslo itself has been inundated by the Munch mania. As you enter the airport, you are greeted with a stunning display of large-scale Munch prints, the most audacious of them being his 1907-08 work “Bathing Men,” a masterpiece of a composition of several frontally nude men walking towards the viewer. As you board their Flytoget airport express, you are struck by the glass panes of the trains having been taken over by transfers of “The Scream”; so too, city buses and public facades. “ Munch 150” is, undoubtedly, the most comprehensive and collaborative retrospective of an artist in recent times.

Munch, in his despair, might have sloshed in whisky. But Oslo has literally gone high on “old” Munch.

(Sadanand Menon was part of an international media contingent, specially invited to attend the opening of “Munch 150.”)

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2021 1:46:03 AM |

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