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Sunday, May 26, 2024

A new natural way into Munch’s art

Oslo’s Munch museum has opened a highly acclaimed exhibition that offers insight into a little-explored side of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch: His close engagement with nature. Better known for his portrayals of anxiety and other human emotion, Munch also delved into landscape art and insisted that people are not separated from our natural environment, but an integrated part of it.

Edvard Munch painted “The Yellow Log” in 1912 and depicted the forest not as a place for adventure or recreation but as a scene of exploitation of nature. That’s become a highly relevant issue today as well.  PHOTO: Møst

The exhibition, titled Trembling Earth/Jordsvingninger, is now on display in Munch’s hometown of Oslo after rave reviews at two initial venues abroad. It includes works by Edvard Munch that are rarely seen in public, and that perhaps have never been seen in such an envirocentric setting.

In The Yellow Log from 1912, for example, Munch takes the viewer into the forest, of which there are many in his native Norway. He doesn’t depict the forest as scenic or tranquil, however, but rather as a site of exploitation and destruction of nature. At a time of environmental crisis and a growing sense of grief over nature that’s been lost, also in Munch’s own homeland, these works are perhaps sending an even more powerful message today than when Munch created them.

Curator Trine Otte Bak Nielsen says the main goal of the exhibition is to highlight how important nature was to Munch. “All the time, he consciously uses nature in his images,” she told reporters at a recent preview of the exhibition, which runs through this summer.

While it’s common to see Edvard Munch as a painter of figures, nature was very important to him, according to Munch curator Trine Otte Bak Nielsen: “All the time, he consciously uses nature in his images.” PHOTO: Møst

“Most people tend to think of (Munch) as a painter of figures, it’s them we see first in works like The Scream, Vampire or Melancholy,” Nielsen said. “Here the focus is on Munch’s view of mankind and nature as equals, and his holistic understanding of humans as a part of the world.”

The exhibition at Oslo’s Munch museum (now simply called MUNCH) has been created in part by borrowing relevant pieces from helpful art institutions in Europe and the US, along with Norway’s National Museum and private collections. Wealthy local collectors Christen Sveaas and Stein Erik Hagen are among those who made their Munch treasures available for the occasion.

Before finally coming to Oslo, Trembling Earth has been seen by an estimated 400,000 people in the US and Germany – at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts and Potsdam’s Museum Barberini, both of which are MUNCH’s project partners.

Nature is believed to be far more than a backdrop to Munch. In shorelines, he saw “the perpetually shifting lines of life.” And “even in the hardest stone, the flame of life blazes.” This painting from 1904 is simply entitled “Beach.” PHOTO: MUNCH

In Oslo, the 120 paintings, prints and drawings that make up the exhibition fill the third floor of MUNCH. It’s divided into eight rooms of different sizes, each dedicated to a nature theme including forests, shorelines, cultivated landscapes, snow and storms, the sun and not least the “Cosmic Cycle,” which was at the core of Munch’s outlook on nature and its forces. He kept a keen eye on what was happening in his time: On display are some of the scientific journals from his library that probably helped shape his view of the world.

Over the archway pictured above hangs Munch’s “Meeting in space,” depicting a man and a woman floating in space. This room, called “In a Cosmic Cycle,” leads into the “Beneath the Sun” section that displays early and smaller versions of the monumental paintings Munch created for the University of Oslo’s ceremonial hall called Aula. PHOTO: Møst

Scientific discoveries during Edvard Munch’s lifetime (1863-1944), along with subsequent changes in the general understanding of nature, inspired him to explore and depict the ever-changing forces of nature and their relations to humans. In one text on display, Munch compared human fate to the planets, meeting in space only to disappear once again. “In this way, he links the drives and longings of individuals to cyclical, universal forces,” wrote co-curator Nanna Lenander in the exhibition’s catalogue.

The catalogue itself is a massive book with photos of all the works on display, comments by the curators, a short story by British author Ali Smith, plus several essays on Munch’s view of the world.

In two of the rooms, music or “soundworks” by composers Deathprod (Helge Sten) and Lost Girls (Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden) add to the ambiance (or distract from it, depending on one’s preferences). Parallel to the exhibition comes an unusual double album from the local Smalltown Supersound record label, with music by Norwegian and international musicians. Each of the 18 pieces, mostly from the electronic/ambient/noise spheres, is inspired by a particular work by Edvard Munch and carries its title.

The use of sound and music elements alongside Munch’s works echoes the 2022 Satyricon & Munch exhibition, in which Black Metal musician Sigurd Wongraven composed instrumental music to be played in a dark room with a selection of Munch’s gloomiest paintings on the walls.

An early, smaller version of Munch’s masterpiece “The Sun” is also included in the new exhibition. It was created and exhibited as part of Munch’s efforts to be commissioned to decorate one of the University of Oslo’s original buildings in the early 1900s. This version now on display at MUNCH measures about 5×3 meters. The final version that adorns what’s now the university’s ceremonial in downtown Oslo is almost 7.8 meters wide. Munch’s idea was express a university’s basic task – enlightenment – as a majestic sunrise. PHOTO: MUNCH

An additional treasure on the walls of Trembling Earth is a series of large drafts made by Munch between 1909 and 1916, when he competed to decorate what was then the University of Oslo’s assembly hall with inspirational murals. He did win the commission, which resulted in what’s known as Munch’s monumental works. They’re the largest paintings he ever made, and that series includes his enormous masterpieces The Sun and Alma Mater. Munch had exhibited smaller versions, a move believed to have helped secure the job.

Now 11 of those works are on display in the same room. While some of those fragile pieces have been exhibited before, lying on tables, this appears to be the first time they’re shown mounted on canvas.

“It’s very special,” said curator Trine Otte Bak Nielsen. “From what we have been able to gather, they have never been displayed this way in the history of the Munch Museum.”

Trembling Earth opened on April 28 and will run through August 25. Møst



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