Whenever we think of Norwegian artist Edvard Minch we instantly think of his most famous painting, The Scream. It conjures up an idea of tortured and tormented life in Norway despite the beauty of the country. A life on the edge of Europe where so often it's cold and dark. But the Scream has a deeper a story as has Edvard Munch and his other paintings that are so often overlooked.
The Scream has been used so much in modern art, films and stories that it makes us think that it's all about terror, fear and torment. If we take a closer look at what Munch tells us himself about his painting, we can't help but be fascinated by it's story.
Picture a beautiful late summer evening in Oslo. Munch and two friends are taking a stroll across a bridge with the setting sun illuminating the beautiful, calm fjord ahead of them. Munch stops to look at the spectacular colours as the sun turns the water to oranges and reds and almost seems to catch fire As his friends continue to walk unknowing, Munch is suddenly overcome by an engulfing sense of melancholy that fills his head with silent screams.
I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
But the Scream, barely scratches the surface of the who Edvard Munch was, where he was from and why he painted like he did.
Munch was born in northern Norway at a time when industrialisation in the country was pushing against rural tranquillity. The possibilities for an artist such as Munch were few and far between and the only way he could really learn and practice his skills was to travel to other places. He lived in Paris and Berlin where he learned from artists such as Gaugin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec and was urged to paint from his heart, giving life to "soul painting". Munch never wanted to paint "pretty" art. He wanted to capture the essence of human feeling and emotions and paint art that had deep meaning. In his own words "in my art I attempt to explain it's meaning to myself".
Munch was always drawn back to Norway though. In 1898 he bought a tiny house in the tranquil and beautiful seaside village of Åsgårdstrand. Åsgårdsrand is a picturesque place of brightly coloured wooden houses leading down to the sandy and smooth rocks of the Oslofjord (not far from my own home in fact) and the calm, wide blue sea beyond. It's peaceful, quiet and impossibly pretty with an abundance of flowers and fruit trees dotted around the welcoming homes. It also boasts that special light that so many seaside destinations have and the thing that attracts many artists to them. The light is clear and crisp and perfect for painting.
In winter we have snow and ice , but in the summer it's green, lush and full of wild flowers, seabirds and glittering water. Many of Munch's paintings from his time in Åsgårdstrand reflect that Scandinavian summer idyll with beautifully dressed little children standing in front of the pretty wooden houses.
Munch had always been troubled by worries that he would develop his family history of anxiety and depression and was convinced that he already was. Åsgårdstrand must have a wonderful tonic to those worries and it shows in his more carefree paintings like The Girls on a Bridge or The Clothes on a Line in Åsgaårdstrand - moments of rural simplicity captured so carefully and with such feeling. Munch was said to have been very popular with the locals in Åsgårdstrand and so must have been an open and likeable character while he was there.
Another favourite inspirational location of Munch's was Kragerø. Kragerø is a small town on the Telemark coast. It's very similar to Åsgårdstrand - a small fishing town but must have been a bit busier and more buzzing than Åsgårdstrand was back then. Back in Munch's time it was on the edge of industrialisation and Munch was there at a time when things were changing. It seems to have occupied him more than somewhat in his life. Maybe it was because he was from a rural community himself or perhaps it felt slightly un-Norwegian to be allowing industry to eat away at precious nature.
He captured these feelings perfectly in some of his more unusual paintings like this one above, called "Historien" (The Story). It shows how much Munch values traditional Norwegian values as it depicts an old man telling an oral history to a young boy. The place they are sitting at is a bit of a walk from Kragerø town, up on a high hill with an amazing view over the town, harbour and archipelago beyond. I wonder if the old man was already sitting there contemplating life, or perhaps just having a rest after the walk. Did the young boy walk with him, or was he playing there and drawn to the old man who looked like he might be interesting?
In Kragerø you can walk the paths Munch took and sit in the places he sat as he painted, much as he would have done then.
Here in Norway Munch is much revered and is one of the country's most celebrated artists. Naturally his most precious and treasured works are housed in the relatively new Munch Museum on the waterfront in Oslo. It's a striking destination that draws thousands and thousands of visitors each year not just for the fabulous art, but also for it's incredible location and stunning architecture. Its been carefully designed to allow in just the right amount of light to truly appreciate Munch's works and for those traveling to Norway it's a must-see.
But in my opinion, nothing comes close to appreciating an artist on a deeper level than to walk in their footsteps, to cross the threshold of their home, or to sit where they sat as they drew creative inspiration for their next work. How did that place change them? Why were they there? And where did they stand to grab that fleeting moment that they captured so cleverly on canvas? And that is why if you want to understand a different Munch to the slightly tortured soul who painted the Scream you need to go to the places that made him happy and stand in locations where he painted such sunny scenes and rural tranquility.
There's no denyiing that MUnch's art much of time is challenging to look at and even uncomfortable. Afterall art is not just an expression of creativity it also makes us feel something - good, bad, happiness, sadness, anger, you name it, but a feeling nonetheless.
But it's also rather reassuring to look at art that is pretty. Art that reminds us that the tortured soul of the artist was at peace for a time at least, before they returned to their never-ending search for whatever inspired them to pick up their art materials in the first place.