Reflections on Edvard Munch: an interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard
Giulia Bartrum: It seems that Edvard Munch has a cult following of almost mythical proportions in Norway. Why do you think this is, and what was your personal introduction to Munch as an artist?
Karl Ove: Norway is a very small country, and Munch is the only Norwegian artist who has made an impact in the art history of the world, so it is not necessarily that he has a cult following, it is more that he is such a major figure in our culture that he seems to be everywhere. That’s probably why I can’t recall ever being introduced to Munch – he was always already there. Any Norwegian will be familiar with at least fifteen Munch paintings and the basics of his biography, I think.
GB: So he’s a personality first and foremost to Norwegians, rather than an artist?
KO: He is the artist. I don’t know if there is an equivalent figure in British culture, an artist that is above everyone else… Maybe Turner? The interesting thing is that the more familiar you are with an artist, the harder it is to see the art. I remember that several schoolbooks had paintings by Munch on the cover. When you see art in that way, as images among everyday objects, the art too becomes an everyday object, and you stop – if you ever started – to see it. What you know defines what you see, and in the end you only see what you know. In a painting like The Scream, everything we know breaks down. The painting in itself is also about a breakdown. How terrible it is to feel the fear Munch depicted in that painting. How dreadful. So it is very ironic that exactly that painting became iconic. We don’t see it any more, how can we? We see the famous The Scream.
In Norway, there are several other paintings by Munch almost as iconic. The Vampire, Jealousy, The Sun, The Girls on the Bridge – it is hard to find a Munch painting that is not iconic. Which means that his art in a way is almost invisible. That was the challenge I had when the Munch Museum asked me if I wanted to curate an exhibition there in 2017. They chose me, I think, because they wanted to highlight his writing. I must have disappointed them, because I banned all writing in the exhibition, so there were no names of paintings even, nor any dating of them – I wanted to get rid of as many of the things that pre-charge our visual experience as possible, all the things that make us see things in a certain way, because art – and literature! – is all about that to me. I chose almost only unknown paintings, many that never had been shown before. I was shown all the paintings and I was completely astonished. There were so many I had never seen before. And they were all in different states: some only very rough sketches, some unfinished, some good, some bad, some masterpieces. The collection represents Munch as a painter when he died; this is what he left behind. In a museum, you always see art meticulously curated. This was very different. This was like an enormous work in progress, frozen in time. Having seen this, I decided to show paintings that were seldom, or never, shown, and then try to create the essence of Munch, or what he had going on, through other paintings. But the iconic paintings are iconic for a reason: they are also very good. And these other paintings are not always as good. Then again, they might be able to break through our defences exactly because of that. In itself it raises interesting questions: what is quality, for instance?
GB: His relative, Frits Thaulow, who was a popular landscape artist, helped him initially but clearly landscapes weren’t enough for Munch.
KO: No, they weren’t. Thaulow’s great but he’s very different. In The Sick Child the room in itself, the space we see people and events through, is distorted. That means that there is no distance between the sick, dying girl and the viewer. Space in a picture can be comforting; what happens in the space will pass while the space will continue to exist and new things will happen in it. That time – that there is a before and an after – is comforting. If you remove that space, what you see is all of a sudden urgent in a different way. It connects the viewer with the picture, they share the same room, so whatever happens there, happens now. There’s no distance between them. That is what really happens in The Scream – the space is distorted and has become part of the screaming man, subdued his experience of it, somehow. In The Sick Child it is less obvious, because the distortion of the space also has to do with the fact that Munch is painting a memory.
He is painting his sister’s deathbed. He used a model, so he could have made everything realistic, as he was supposed to, but he wanted to break through what he saw into what he remembered. So you have two colliding levels: the past and the present. Then you have the realistic space and the painted space, also colliding.
Munch was so young and this painting was such an exception in his oeuvre that he probably didn’t plan any of this. I doubt he had an aesthetic ready, but he felt the need to go in that direction, towards the unfinished, towards the direct and immediate and emotion-driven. And I think that drive was what made him such a great woodcut artist too. That is a rawer, more direct way of expression. The artist’s contact with the material is immediate and visible, and somehow it also requires an element of the iconic. So it was perfect for Munch – he was a master of the iconic. If you look at The Sick Child, it has all these layers of paint and it is blurred and distorted, but you also have the girl’s head turned towards the mother, and the mother’s head that is bowed down. That is an iconic image: you could represent it on a stamp and it would not lose its significance. Other paintings from that time don’t have that quality, for instance one called Morning from 1884. It depicts a girl waking up, sitting on a bed, and it’s all about colour, and it is occupied with creating space and volume with different shades of white. It is very beautiful.
GB: Especially the fall of light on her face…
KO: Yes, and when you go to his 1890 paintings – The Scream, Jealousy, Vampire –you will see that everything he struggled with in Morning has simply been removed. There’s no volume, there’s no colour that is there in its own right, as colour, and there’s no process. But there are iconic figures. In Vampire, the man and woman merge into one.
In The Scream, the open mouth and the hands pressed against the head. Melancholy, the man with the bowed head in front of the beach bending and the sky above. Every one of these paintings could be transferred to another medium without losing its essence. That is a very unpainterly thing to do – you can’t imagine Turner transferring his paintings to woodcuts without losing something on the way, nor Rothko…. Munch’s drawings were excellent, and I have heard that many artists look upon him as a woodcut artist first and foremost, or believe that he is most important in that field.
GB: What do you think lay behind Munch’s continual repetition?
KO: Poul Erik Tojner, the head of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark and author of a book about Munch, has a theory about Munch’s notorious repetitions. At the end of his life, when he was in his seventies, he still repainted earlier work. Many motifs he repeated almost endlessly, in many different media. Tojner thinks that Munch was constantly looking for images that were there beforehand, so for Munch it was just a matter of finding them. When he did, it wasn’t about the painting in itself, as an object, it was about the motif. That’s why he could transfer it and remake it again and again – the value lay in the form of the motif, not in the physical presence in that specific painting. It is almost a platonic thought, you know, believing that the idea of things exists independently of them. That could explain why Munch’s seriality is so very different from Monet’s seriality, for instance. Monet painted the same church or the same haystack throughout a day, in different light, because he was interested in the differences, the changes in time and light. Munch, on the other hand, was not interested in what changed, he was interested in what stayed the same. He was not interested in the process, but in the iconic, ever-present image. And that is perhaps why he was such a brilliant printmaker.
To read the full interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard and to find out more about the life and work of Edvard Munch, purchase the beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue (£30, Thames and Hudson). Order yours today.
Edvard Munch: love and angst is open until 21 July 2019. Supported by AKO Foundation. Find out more and book tickets.