One of Norway’s most internationally prominent authors, Karl Ove Knausgård, has put together an exhibit of works by the country’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch, in a creative effort by Oslo’s Munch Museum to offer “a different, new and fresh look” at Munch’s artistry. The result is likely to at least delight all those who’ve complained for years that the vast majority of the art Munch himself willed to the city has remained stored in the museum’s cellar and never been seen.
“I wanted to show unknown paintings, so that it would be like seeing Munch’s art for the first time,” Knausgård said in describing his personal goal for the unusual exhibit. It opens this weekend at the Munch Museum in Oslo and was already getting good reviews following a press showing on Wednesday.
After being invited by the Munch Museum to serve as curator for this summer’s exhibit, called Mot skogen (Towards the forest), the author of the highly acclaimed series Min kamp (My struggle) faced a new one: choosing paintings for the exhibit from the roughly 1,100 available in storage. Munch’s collection also includes 15,500 graphics, 4,700 drawings and six sculptures in addition to 500 printing plates, 2,240 books, notebooks, photographs, tools and furniture.
Knausgård was given unique, full access to the museum’s cellars where Munch’s art is stored, and he and the museum’s full-time curator, Kari Brandtzæg, went through all of the paintings. He chose nearly 150, most of which have never been put on display before.
“I had a quite clear idea that we shouldn’t display any of the well-known Munch icons, that the exhibit almost shouldn’t look like a Munch exhibit,” Knausgård told magazine D2 earlier this spring. It’s the paintings that have been stuck in the cellar, his lesser-known and uknown works, that dominate the exhibit, with the exception of a version of Solen (The Sun) that starts it all off on a light, optimistic note. “The idea is to try to lift them up and give them meaning, and relevance,” Knausgård added.
His own first meetings with so many paintings by an artist he’s admired since his teenage years revealed a new fury and passion in Munch’s works, but also a wildness, crudeness and disregard for actually finishing a piece. “There’s something very impulsive and intense in everything he did,” Knausgård told D2. “The pictures we have chosen can, for example, be of a barn in a garden, painted just as he saw it, when he saw it, and that’s it.”
Knausgård, who studied Munch and art history while a student at the University of Bergen, simply didn’t want to show off icons like Scream, Madonna or Vampyr. Versions of them continue to hang in the Munch collection at Norway’s National Gallery in Oslo, so visitors to Oslo this summer can see them there, while the Munch Museum itself is offering something completely different and new.
The Munch Museum, which opened in 1963, was not built large enough to exhibit Munch’s own personal collection from his highly prolific career. When Munch died in Oslo in 1944, his collection was left to the city but it took time during the difficult post-war years to build the museum when funding was scarce and other needs like housing were high. Now a new Munch Museum is rising on Oslo’s eastern waterfront that’s meant to finally do justice to the city treasure trove of Munch art. Until it opens a few years from now, the existing museum is keen stay relevant itself.
It’s had a successful run of exhibits in recent years pairing Munch’s art with that of a wide range of other artists, from Vincent Van Gogh to Bjarne Melgaard. They have drawn nearly 500,000 visitors to the existing museum at Tøyen in Oslo. Museum leaders hope the Knausgård-Munch exhibit will draw tens of thousands more. In addition to having Knausgård as its curator, the museum hired the famed Oslo architecture Snøhetta to help design the exhibit. Brandtzæg insisted, however, that “Karl Ove is the boss.” His personal international fame is clearly hoped to be a drawing card, meant to attract readers of the millions of books he’s sold around the world since his first book in the Min kamp series appeared in 2009.
Asked whether he identifies with Munch, he concedes that both he and Munch have been described as having lives that lack any real joy. “But one thing I recognize in him is is temper,” Knausgård told D2. “I think we were very different types, but there are things about him I can relate to, and there are things in his art I relate to. But so can everyone.”
Knausgård himself says he’s developed a thicker skin since laying out the most intimate details of his life and his family’s in his literary project that won him so much acclaim. His international success has made it difficult for him, he said, to find the peace needed to keep writing. “There’s been a lot of hype, and the air always goes out of hype,” he said. “Then you land somewhere. I just try to keep writing and keep up with things that come up.” He’s going through a divorce (from Swedish author Linda Boström Knausgård) but still lives in a small town in southern Sweden where he says he “doesn’t meet any people, spends time only with family, or sits and writes.” When he doesn’t get involved in projects like the Munch exhibit.
He has also written a book about Munch that’s tied to the exhibit and is getting rave reviews in the Norwegian press. In it, he reflects on the essence of the artist, has interviewed Munch experts and several other artists including Vanessa Baird and Anselm Kiefer. D2 reported that he invited artist David Hockney, who has created works inspired by Munch, to the exhibit’s opening this weekend, but Knausgård said “he wrote back that he was 80 years old, doesn’t hear well and doesn’t like traveling anymore.” Knausgård intended to interview him about Munch via email instead.
Reviews of Knausgård’s Munch exhibit have been mostly positive, with Aftenposten praising how it’s divided into four parts that start out with paintings that are light and optimistic, before the next batch ventures into the dark forests and various states of consciousness including jealousy and anxiety, before ending with a series of portraits that appear more professional in nature. The exhibit shows how Munch could be preoccupied with the simple tasks of daily life, with paintings of people working in their gardens, painting a house, swimming or simply sitting around a table.
Art critic Lars Elton wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday that the exhibit is another controversial example of museums using celebrities to draw visitors, like how a Bergen art museum is reopening with an exhibit of Queen Sonja’s art. “I like Mot skogen, it’s become both a fine and different exhibit,” Elton wrote, “but it doesn’t have any great news value in relation to Munch’s artistry.”
Others, including Elton, have pointed out that for an exhibit that had a prolific author as its curator, it offers very little text itself. The paintings lack both titles and dates. Brandtzæg explained that neither chronology nor biography were a priority, so that the exhibit would be “a much more free and emotional path into Munch’s artistry.” The paintings, in other words, are meant to speak for themselves.
Knausgård admitted to being nervous about the exhibit’s opening, but said the whole project had been “one of the most fun things I’ve done as a professional. To be able to use the Munch Museum’s entire collection is a unique possibility.”
The exhibit will run until October 8.