Munch masterpieces back home again

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One of the most popular and highly acclaimed exhibitions of the works of famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch has finally opened back home in Oslo after a record-breaking European tour. The triumphant return of Munch’s art this week led to a truce, at least for now, in the ongoing political quarrel over where a new Munch Museum will be built in the capital of Munch’s homeland.

Security was tight when the new “Modern Eye” exhibition opened this week at the Munch Museum in Oslo. The exhibition already has broken records during a European tour over the past year. PHOTO:

The existing museum in Oslo’s eastside Tøyen district, which museum director Stein Olav Henrichsen himself characterized as “old and run-down,” was spruced up to the best of its staff’s ability on Tuesday to welcome everyone from Queen Sonja to members of the Foreign Press Association, who were given a sneak preview of the exhibition The Modern Eye and what could best be described as a pep talk about the museum’s future.

Museum officials hope the new exhibition, which offers new insight into the artist himself and his methods for creating some of the world’s most famous works, will appeal to the Norwegian public, but their expectations are modest. Nearly a million people streamed to its showings at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Tate Modern in London, breaking attendance records along the way. “If we get 100,000 here in Oslo, it will be fantastic, we’ll celebrate,” Henrichsen said.

Angela Lampe of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, shown here with one of the versions of Munch’s “Puberty” now on display in Oslo, initiated the exhibition that drew record crowds in Paris and Frankfurt. It also just ended a successful run at the Tate Modern in London. PHOTO:

The Oslo version of the exhibition has all reason to attract crowds, not least because it actually offers more than the wildly popular versions that were mounted abroad. Angela Lampe, curator of modern art at the Centre Pompidou in Paris who initiated and organized the traveling “Modern Eye” exhibition in cooperation with the Munch Museum of Oslo, was in Oslo for Tuesday’s formal opening and noted how it includes additional Munch paintings that were too fragile to travel. It also includes the most famous Munch painting of all.

“It has The Scream, which we didn’t have on the tour,” Lampe said, along with a wall full of Scream graphics and historic objects revealing how Munch seemed to realize that his iconic screaming figure would likely be reproduced for years to come. In the Oslo exhibition, The Scream plays a major role in the “Repetition and Reproduction” portion that shows how Munch “endlessly returned to subjects he had already tackled,” as Lampe put it. Munch was criticized at the time for creating various versions of The Sick Child, for example, or Puberty and Vampire. The exhibition shows the value of such repetition, and what it may mean for the artist and the public.

This painting by Edvard Munch was at least partially inspired by an early film of workers pouring out of a factory. Both Lampe and Oslo curator Lars Toft-Eriksen noted that Munch was an eager user of the new technology of his time, and experimented with it in his art. PHOTO:

The Munch Museum’s extensive archives in Oslo also provided rare gems not seen before, including historic objects in addition to Munch’s art like the early film camera Munch used as an amateur filmmaker. The Modern Eye exhibition shows how Munch was an eager user of modern technology during his lifetime, like the cameras that he also used with outstretched arms to photograph himself, just like people today use mobile phone camera to do the same. That way, Munch could get photographic profiles of himself, for use in his art. An historic clip from a film made by the French Lumiere brothers showing workers pouring out of a factory is placed near a painting Munch created of workers. It shows how he used film in his art, and how he was interested in social causes like labour conditions for the working class.

Edvard Munch was himself using his iconic “Scream” motif in other forms during his own lifetime, like this sketch he drew for the Labour Day edition of a Norwegian newspaper in 1898. The newspaper is among many historic objects tied to Munch’s work that also are on display at “The Modern Eye” exhibition. PHOTO:

The exhibition shows Munch as far more playful and engaged, with a wide ranges of interests, than he’s been portrayed earlier. He wasn’t necessarily the self-possessed loner many believed him to be, as evidenced by his works in “The Outside World” portion of the exhibit that reflect current events of his time. A series of stage designs he made for a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” shows his diversity, along with his sense of space.

The exhibition in Oslo runs through February 17, 2013, the year in which the Munch Museum also will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth. Now museum staff and officials hope they’ll have more to celebrate, in the form of a firm new plan for a new museum building.

The inability of Oslo politicians to decide on a new home for the priceless collection of Munch’s art that Munch himself willed to the city has frustrated art enthusiasts to the point that hundreds marched in a torchlight parade last week to demand an end to the quarreling. Museum staff has all reason to be demoralized by what many consider the shabby treatment given Munch’s collection over the years. The museum has needed to turn to external funding, and The Modern Eye exhibit has itself been sponsored by the museum’s long-time supporter, the Idemitsu Corp of Japan, power company Statkraft and, in Oslo, the Airport Express Train (Flytoget). Henrichsen preferred on Tuesday to put a positive spin on the controversy.

“We are very optimistic,” Henrichsen claimed, despite reports in Oslo newspaper Aftenposten the same day that staff is worried about looming budget cuts, internal conflicts, restructuring and even harassment in the workplace. “Today is a very important day for us. We are hoping to get an agreement (on a new museum location) this autumn.”

So is Mayor Fabian Stang of the Conservative Party, who has admitted the political quarreling is “childish,” and not least Queen Sonja. She formally opened the exhibition on Tuesday, and spoke to a gathering of around 500 guests including sponsors and cultural officials, after arriving nearly 45 minutes late following her attendance at the funeral of the prime minister’s mother.

“It will be exciting to see where this discussion (on a new museum site) ends,” the queen said in prepared remarks, adding that she hopes the conflicts can be solved, “and quickly.” Asked later whether Munch needs a new museum, she replied, “Isn’t that what we all dream about?”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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