Munch texts a ‘hidden treasure’

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Edvard Munch wasn’t just a painter, he was also a prolific author whose writing deserves to be better known, claims Norwegian writer, composer and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad. He calls it a “scandal” that the artist’s texts have been hidden away from the public in the archives of the Munch Museum in Oslo.

The artist and writer Edvard Munch. PHOTO: The Munch Museum /Munch-Ellingsen-Group/BONO 2013

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was also a prolific writer. PHOTO: The Munch Museum /Munch-Ellingsen-Group/BONO 2013

Norway’s most famous artist also wrote around 13,000 handwritten pages, including several plays, drafts of novels and other literary works. Bjørnstad, whose biography of the artist, “The Story of Edvard Munch,” is based on the artist’s writings, doesn’t think art historians realize their literary worth.

“When they pluck out quotes from the vast (written) archive, it is mostly to illustrate a picture, or to give strength to their own interpretations,” Bjørnstad told newspaper Aftenposten. “But Munch’s literary works are far more than background material.” At their best, he believes, they are on a par with August Strindberg.

Munch willed all his works, both the artworks and the collection of texts, to the municipality of Oslo upon his death in 1944. The Munch Museum manages the vast inheritance.

Bjørnstad was the first person who managed to get access to a lot of Munch’s writing. They are, he says, shrouded in an undue secretiveness that distresses him, and requesting access to them, he claimed, was like asking to be let into a bank vault.

He thinks it is a “disgrace” that the public has not yet been able to become deeply acquainted with them, proposing that all the writings should be published in a collected edition along with the letters. “Then people will quickly realize that we are not just sitting with the legacy of Edvard Munch the painter, but also the author of the same name,” he said.

The texts have been unavailable for so long at Munch’s own request, according to research librarian Lasse Jacobsen at the Munch Museum. He points to a clause in the inheritance that states the texts should be read by “understanding, broad-minded people after my death.”

Jacobsen says that the interpretation of this clause has become “softer” over the years, and now around 70 percent of the texts are available online as part of the Museum’s extensive digitalization project. It is mostly intended as a resource for researchers.

Read some of Munch’s texts translated into English here (external link).

Jacobsen also thinks that journals and literary notes in general used to be thought of as private, and the writings may have been held back from the public for that reason as well.

Munch wrote about his paintings, including “The Scream” (Skrik), “The Sick Child” (Syk pike) and “Madonna” before he painted them. Bjørnstad set 15 of the texts to music, including “The Scream,” for the album “Løsrivelse” (or “Separation,” also the title of a Munch painting), which came out in 1993 and sold 50,000 copies. Bjørnstad will be holding a series of concerts together with the Norwegian singer and songwriter  Kari Bremnes, who was vocalist on the original album.

Bremnes told Aftenposten that people mistakenly believe the songs are about Edvard Munch, and that their reaction is often “what, did he write?” when they realize they are his own words. “Munch is concrete, he does not say much about his own feelings. You can interpret it however you want to, which makes it even more powerful,” she said.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth,  with the largest and most comprehensive exhibit of Munch’s art ever mounted, the Jubileumutstilling Munch 150, opening June 2 at both the Munch Museum and the National Gallery, with the latter downtown showing works from 1882 until 1903 and the museum at Tøyen showing works from 1904 until Munch’s death in 1944. The exhibit will run until October 13.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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