“TSOUND BIG and solitary artist ”, writes JP Hodin of Edvard Munch,“ was appreciated… only by a handful of initiates in the West. It has remained virtually unknown to Americans as well as to the English and French. Distinguished art historian, Hodin made his assessment in 1950, six years after Munch’s death, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective of his work. Over the next seven decades, Munch became a world art rock star.
“Le Cri”, in which a human figure squeezes its skull against a swirling sunset, is as recognizable as Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Monet’s water lilies. Its mystique was heightened in 1994 when thieves stole Munch’s original version of the painting (he made several) from the National Gallery of Norway. In 2004, masked gunmen fled with another daylight version of the poorly secured (and relatively small) Munch Museum. Both were recovered, although the photo slipped on the second flight was damaged.
The 2004 drama contributed to the decision to build a new museum for the country’s most famous painter. Four years later, authorities in Oslo announced their intention to house the city’s treasury of 42,000 Munch-related items, including paintings, sculptures, prints and photos. The inauguration was slated for 2014 – when Norway celebrated the 200th anniversary of the signing of its constitution – but disputes over costs and architecture, as well as the covid-19 pandemic, delayed it until last month. A street party followed the inauguration by King Harald and Queen Sonja.
“Forget everything you know about museums,” says Stein Olav Henrichsen, Bitethe director of. “It’s totally different.” (He even deleted the word “museum” from his name.) The 13-story building on the Oslo Fjord is one of the world’s largest single-artist institutions, with a theater, library, cinema, rooftop restaurant and temporary exhibition space. It overlooks the city’s opera house, a public library and residential buildings, all part of a recent urban renewal project.
The unusual design is controversial. Some Norwegians have criticized the airport feel of the monochrome interior, apparently intended to accommodate crowds of Munch devotees. Others are won over by the corrugated aluminum siding on the exterior, which glows in the sun during the day and emits light through perforations at night, igniting the tower. Juan Herreros, the museum’s Spanish architect, says he wanted to make art the protagonist of the building. No fantasy should obscure the work on display.
As you might expect, “The Scream” is the centerpiece. It is only upon arrival that visitors will learn which of the three rotating versions will be on display. They are part of “Edvard Munch Infinite”, a permanent exhibition of some of his best known paintings, such as “Madonna” (sometimes called “Woman Making Love”), also stolen during the 2004 heist. “Edvard Munch Monumental” presents some of the great paintings he made for the University of Oslo. “The Researchers,” a 36-foot (11-meter) bath scene, reflects the interest he developed in vitalism after a nervous collapse. A popular school of thought in Germany, where Munch lived in the 1890s, vitalism emphasized hygiene, physical education, and the life force of the sun.
Munch’s childhood was traumatic. Her mother and favorite sister died of tuberculosis. Another sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia; her father suffered from depression. The artist himself has struggled with mental illness. A longtime single, who lived out her days in an estate outside of Oslo, her greatest attachment was her job. When he died at the age of 80, he donated thousands of items and his personal papers to his hometown. Finally, it is to do justice to his munificence and his genius. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Light in the Dark”