Edvard Munch was among the most celebrated and controversial artists of his generation, but, in his own words, his true “breakthrough came very late in life, really only starting when I was 50 years old.” The exhibition Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed uses the artist’s late paintings as a starting point from which to reevaluate his entire career. In October of 2016, in the midst of organizing the exhibition, Caitlin Haskell, associate curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, and Jon-Ove Steihaug, director of exhibitions and collections at Oslo’s Munch Museum, sat down to discuss this singular artist, who is one of modernism’s most significant figures.
Caitlin Haskell: First of all, thank you, Jon-Ove for making time for this conversation. I know it’s getting late in Oslo, so maybe we should jump right in and start by discussing a few of the basics about Munch that would be helpful for visitors to know before coming to our exhibition. In Norway, Munch is a name that needs no introduction, but here I’d imagine many people will be seeing his paintings in person for the first time.
Jon-Ove Steihaug: Munch is, let’s say, one of the founding figures of modern art, of modern painting, in the generation following Manet and the Impressionists. And he came of age with the Symbolists of the 1880s and the 1890s—that’s when his paintings first became widely known. A useful reference point might the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne in 1912, which was a bit, I suppose, like the Armory Show in New York—a manifestation of the new painting of that time. And there Munch was given a position parallel to other founding fathers like Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin, for instance. So his place at the vanguard of modern painting was already firmly established at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was in his forties. And, as people will see in our exhibition, he continued working very actively for decades after that into the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
CH: When did you, personally, become aware of Munch as an artist?
JOS: Probably I saw some reproductions of his in my schoolbooks early on. But my first conscious memory was when I was maybe around 17 years old. There was a new book on Munch coming out with lots of illustrations. And at that point I was in an impressionable phase. And I was really touched as a teenager by his paintings and also about the whole story of Munch—this artist who painted about such moving things. And I think that’s true for many Norwegian people. He’s really an artist who has a strong effect on a younger generation, on teenagers.
CH: But now, of course, you relate to his work in a different way.
JOS: I’m not that sentimental about the art anymore—I’m not infatuated by the biography or the myths surrounding Munch. But what never stops surprising me is the way Munch handles paint, and how this is interwoven with the subject matter of his works. It’s really marvelous. Sometimes it’s like, I don’t really understand where this comes from. Or there can be something very suggestive. Some of his faces are so vibrating with strange life. Maybe full of pain, full of some other kind of emotion.
CH: You mention Munch’s faces. It’s amazing how much “abstract painting” there can be in some of Munch’s figural works. The way he makes a mark. The way he allows his paint to drip and ooze and weep. There is a kind of pre-verbal communication that can be very powerful, whether or not you know the specifics of the scene.
JOS: In Munch’s work you always have this double reference—a reference to the thing he’s depicting, and to the paint itself, what paint can do. This makes for a very wide range of experiences. Munch is able to play off of the possibilities of the painterly medium. And also, at the same time, he’s dealing with existential subject matter, which might be recollections of his childhood, and the sickness and loss his family experienced in those early years, or it might be something more uplifting, like love, or even a more contemplative theme, like what it means to grow old.
CH: In preparing for our show, it has been really fascinating to learn about the Munch exhibition that travelled to San Francisco in 1951, which was the last big paintings exhibition of his in the city. When you think about the history of painting in San Francisco at that time, and the very contentious debates that were taking place around abstraction at that moment, and whether there could be a place for figuration, it’s easy to see how eye-opening Munch’s art could be in that type of climate.
JOS: This show was one of the first big international tours that the Munch Museum organized, even before the Munch Museum galleries had been built. It would be interesting to know more about how this show affected American artists.
CH: One person who commented on it specifically was the poet Robert Duncan, who at that time, was very much part of the circle of painters at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). And he and others point to this show as part of a key moment when the conception of modern art was changing, when artists were starting to gain interest again in the possibility of rigorous figuration. And it was doubly important because, when you look at Munch’s works from the mid-1890s and later, the paintings don’t appear to be very closely related to modern art as it was practiced in Paris. There’s very little connection to Cubism or Surrealism, for example. So in that sense, as well, it offered a real alternative to what people had come to expect from modern painting.
So let me shift gears here a little bit. How would you talk about the objectives of the Munch Museum now—in Oslo and abroad?
JOS: We definitely have a feeling of responsibility to make sure that Munch’s work can be seen not only in our museum, but also around the world. Munch left so much of his art to the city of Oslo.1 On one hand, it’s a fantastic gift. On the other hand, some would say it’s a problem that he is not more visible in other major international museums. At the Munch Museum there has always been this sense of obligation, owing the rest of the world a chance to see Munch’s art. And, of course, also supporting him as our national artist. There has also been a conscious effort by the Munch Museum, really from the very beginning, to strengthen Munch’s position in the art world internationally. Munch is immensely popular, in a broad sense, around the world. Not just The Scream. But, at the same time, what for many years was the canonized version of modernism—the discussions centered on New York, and on formalism—tended to leave Munch on the margins. Rethinking Munch’s place in the larger history of modernism is an important challenge for us. And, of course, it wasn’t only Munch who was left on the sidelines; many others were as well.
CH: You could almost articulate this problem the other way around. If your version of modernism can’t account for this type of massive artistic contribution, if there isn’t a place for Munch in the history of modernism that you’re telling, well, there’s probably a flaw in your theory.
JOS: And there’s still a gap between Munch’s popular reception and… Well, when you talk with contemporary painters today, Munch is very relevant and alive.
CH: No question. Georg Baselitz, Peter Doig, Tracey Emin, Per Kirkeby, Jasper Johns… Those are just a few of the artists who come to mind immediately and who have spoken about the importance of Munch in relation to their art-making. Who else comes to mind for you?
JOS: Marlene Dumas is someone I would mention. Joseph Beuys was also aware of Munch and spoke about him in interviews. [Last year we opened] an exhibition looking at the relationship between Asger Jorn and Munch. He saw the large exhibition of Munch’s gift to the city of Oslo in the National Gallery in the summer of 1945, right after the war. Of course he knew about Munch before that, but the exhibition was really a watershed for him. And what interested Jorn the most was the late work of Munch, not the symbolist works of the 1890s.
And, you know, that’s another thing. In the reception of Munch you have this convention where the early work tends to be seen as more “important” than what he was making in the 1920s and 30s. Jorn was one of the first to speak for the importance of the later works. So he starts to function as a connection between Munch and European postwar painting — as someone who connects to Munch’s work and develops painterly strategies you might associate more with Abstract Expressionism.
CH: Maybe you could also say a word or two about your work with Snøhetta, and how they’ve been involved in the +Munch series?
JOS: We are in the middle of a big transformation at the Munch Museum, because we are moving to a new building on the Bjørvika waterfront, next to Snøhetta’s opera house.
+Munch is a series that has shown artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Jasper Johns, Vincent Van Gogh, and others together with Munch. The Asger Jorn show I just mentioned is part of this series. It was intended to open up new perspectives on Munch’s art, and it has become a great success, not least with our local public. We wanted to wake up our Norwegian viewership who maybe feel they already know Munch, and engage them in new ways. With Jorn there is a very explicit connection to Munch, but with others the relationship is less obvious.
Snøhetta has been involved in developing the design profile for the whole series and the exhibition design, and they have also designed several of the catalogues. The collaboration has been very inspiring and fruitful in terms of developing our work with exhibition architecture and design, and we’re continuing to collaborate.
CH: I have to say, sometimes I think of our exhibition as a variation on a +Munch show: late Munch plus early Munch. What do you see when you put the 70-year-old Munch opposite the 30-year-old Munch? What was the more mature artist learning from his earlier self?
JOS: Munch was an artist who never stopped looking. Never stopped feeling. He often did new versions of some of his most central motifs, referencing his own art into his late years. Some people think the first part of his career is the classic Munch, and the best. But he’s, in a way, challenging these kinds of simple conclusions. He never stopped processing his own art. You could say that he was completely obsessed with it and that he couldn’t let it go. He wanted to rethink it and live with it. And that, well, that has been a challenge for art historians to deal with.
A version of this interview was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of SFMOMA’s member magazine.