New York Review of Books
December 7, 2017
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.