Latest News

Ask Abuzz

Back to Globe Magazine contents

Related Features Click here for past issues of the Globe Magazine, dating back to June 22, 1997

Letters to the Magazine editor:
Mail can be sent to Letters to the Editor, The Boston Globe, P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378. The email address is magazine@globe.com or use our form.

The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Sunday Magazine Today

From Norway to Newton

In an unlikely pairing, Boston College's art museum is hosting a major show of the works of Edvard Munch.
By Christine Temin

How would the director of the Munch Museum in Oslo respond, Nancy Netzer wondered, if she asked him for the loan of The Scream? Would Arne Eggum himself let out a scream? The painting is, after all, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's signature and a national icon. Its horrified protagonist, clutching the sides of his head, is reproduced on life-size inflatable plastic figures that stressed-out executives have been known to use as punching bags. Asking Norway for The Scream is like asking the Louvre for the Mona Lisa.

And Netzer had other concerns. As director of Boston College's relatively small McMullen Museum of Art, she lacks the usual sort of collateral and leverage involved in museum-to-museum loans. ("You give me your Rembrandt for my show next year; I'll lend you that Rubens you want the year after.") The McMullen owns some 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings by lesser-knowns and some American landscapes, but not yet a coherent collection - nothing to inspire lust in another museum.

Nonetheless, Netzer and her colleagues set out last year to mount a Munch exhibition, and they ended up with the largest-ever Boston-area show to include both the artist's paintings and his prints, and the most comprehensive US show since a National Gallery presentation in 1978. "Edvard Munch: Psyche, Symbol, and Expression" opens tomorrow at the McMullen, where it remains on view through May 21.

In preparation for it, Netzer and two BC collaborators, fine-arts faculty members Jeffery Howe and Claude Cernuschi, went to Norway on a week-long reconnaissance mission last spring; I tagged along. They called on museum directors and visited sites associated with the painter who is in the pantheon of the land of the fjords, right up there with playwright Henrik Ibsen and composer Edvard Grieg. They went, basically, to cajole loans from the heads of the Munch Museum and the National Gallery of Norway. And they were in a hurry: Their requests were going out only eight months before the show, instead of the more typical two to three years. The impetus behind the rush was the offer of a major private collection to anchor the exhibition, combined with the availability of the Munch Museum's paintings, which were being temporarily displaced by a show of works on paper.

Their persistence paid off. The McMullen's presentation includes 25 paintings and 58 prints, with familiar Munch images of deathbeds, drunkenness, and desolation. There are Munch's set designs for Ibsen's Ghosts, along with a3-D re-creation, and the print Woman in Three Stages (The Sphinx), which Munch said inspired Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken. There are also surprises, including an early 1890s painting, View From Balcony, Asgardstrand, recently discovered inside the wall of Munch's summer studio and never shown in public before. It's quintessential Munch - a woman turning her back on the ethereal dreamscape beyond, sunk in her own thoughts. On the reverse of the canvas is a drawing of a woman looking straight out, from behind bars, clearly a preliminary sketch for the painting The Voice, in which the bars become trees. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which owns The Voice, is lending it to the BC show.

And The Scream? Like many of Munch's images, it exists in multiple forms. Munch hated to part with paintings, so when he did, he would make another version of the same subject. He also recycled and varied images in the prints, which are every bit as strong as the paintings: Munch was a master of graphic arts. "For a depressed Norwegian," says Howe, "he never stopped working." Munch, according to Howe, made about 1,500 paintings and at least 15,000 prints during his career.

There are three known paintings of The Scream: one each in the National Gallery of Norway and the Munch Museum, and one in private hands. After delicate discussions with the museums' directors, Netzer decided not even to ask for their Screams: "We would have loved to get one of them. But we didn't get any signal that it was a possibility." She did try, through an intermediary, to get the privately owned one, but that didn't pan out, either. So she'll show a black-and-white lithograph of the canonical image, on loan from New York's Metropolitan Museum.

Munch's own writing about how he came to create The Scream eloquently expresses the angst that seems even more prevalent in society today: "I was out walking with two friends - the sun began to set - 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 endless scream passing through nature."

Arne Eggum opines that in the painting, Munch does battle with a philosopher-titan. "Schopenhauer," Eggum writes, "claimed that the limit of the power of expression of a work of art was its inability to reproduce a scream." But through bloodcurdling swirls of clashing colors that threaten to engulf the fetuslike figure at the center of the work, Munch proves Schopenhauer wrong. The painting shrieks.

In the same way that people associate Renoir with a frothy Parisian whirl, people associate Munch, who lived from 1863 to 1944, with misery. Were he alive today, he'd probably be put on Prozac. Who knows what the effect would have been on his art? Must the artist suffer to make art about suffering? Munch certainly endured more than his share of pain. Physical and mental illness dogged him and his family. The son of an army doctor, Munch was not quite 5 when his mother died of tuberculosis; a sister followed, dead at age 15. He himself endured asthmatic bronchitis, rheumatic fever, and alcoholism. In 1908 he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

His relations with women were as disastrous as van Gogh's: His engagement to Tulla Larsen, a wine merchant's daughter, came to a grim end during a 1902 meeting. There was a revolver in the room. In a shooting incident for which he blamed her, one of the fingers of his left hand was destroyed.

His work wasn't supported either by his country or his city in anything like the way that Norway supported his contemporary, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland, maker of bizarre precursors of Socialist Realism. The municipality of Oslo built Vigeland a palatial studio and gave him an 80-acre park to fill with 600 of his blocky figures: It's a one-man sculptural Disneyland. Meanwhile, Oslo's city fathers nixed Munch's proposals for murals for the new City Hall. Nevertheless, when he died, the artist left all the works remaining in his possession, thousands of paintings, drawings, and prints, to the city. But it took Oslo nearly 20 years to open the Munch Museum that houses them.

Even more than work by his most progressive contemporaries, Munch's art has retained the shock value that led to incidents like the hasty closing of a Berlin show in which he participated in 1892. The resulting notoriety, though, actually benefited his career, large chunks of which were spent in France, Germany, and other parts of Europe, where his art eventually earned respect. In Norway, opinion about him remained polarized.

Was it style or subject that shocked? Both. Quickly working his way through the dominant and then the far-reaching styles of his era - Naturalism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Post-Impressionism - he developed one of his own in which subjective emotion dominated both image and handling. Women are vampires whose sprawling hair traps their victims. His Madonna is depicted as a nude woman swooning in sexual ecstasy; in a print version, the composition includes a border of embryos and sperm.

The Madonna, which may have been called Loving Woman at first, "is an image of a woman seen by her lover during the act of intercourse," Cernuschi says. "Munch, like many artists and intellectuals at the turn of the century, associated sexuality with death, most likely because of the threat of syphilis. Such ideas were later codified in Freud's concept of the death instinct. Even if Munch believed the act of love to be connected to death, it also symbolized the creation of life, the moment that connects all the generations to each other. Munch often projected a religious valence onto his pictures, and that may account for the inclusion of the halo in this image. It's an allegory of life, death, and rebirth."

An early example of the controversy Munch caused is the reception of The Sick Child, a theme he worked on for 40 years. (The BC show includes a print version.) When Munch exhibited the first version of it in Oslo in 1886, it caused an uproar. In this case, says Howe, "it was purely a matter of style: the lack of tight definition, the crusty, scratched surface that resulted from his constant reworking of it." The image shows a young girl, wan and weak, propped up in bed, her calm face turned toward the bent head of the grieving older woman who tends her. Parts of the painting are flat, though with a woven quality, the threads of color forming a loose warp and woof. The background is virtually abstract, leaving the focus squarely on hopelessness.

Howe, by the way, doesn't think of Munch as depressed in the sense of having given up. "He doesn't hide anything," Howe says. "His pictures are the life force struggling against death and despair, life asserting itself. There's a wild joy in the face of that struggle, and he celebrates that as much as he celebrates the act of painting through luscious colors and textures that call attention to the beauty of life."

Munch and the McMullen Museum are not an obvious match. Under Netzer's leadership for the past 11 years, BC's art museum has mounted some stellar shows, most notably of contemporary Irish art, medieval religious artifacts, and a spectacular exhibition centered on a Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, rediscovered in a Jesuit rectory in Dublin. All the above have obvious ties to BC, a Jesuit school with strong links to Ireland. Munch, on the other hand, came from a Lutheran nation whose early-19th-century constitution forbade the entrance of Jesuits into the country. (The rule subsequently changed.)

The seed for the McMullen's extensive examination of the world's most famously depressed artist was sown in 1999, when a first-year BC student named Anna-Elizabeth Arneberg wandered into the McMullen office and asked if the museum had ever considered a Munch show. It hadn't. After she mentioned that her Norwegian grandfather, the architect Arnstein Arneberg, had been a friend of Munch's and that her father, Per, was a collector of Munch's work, it did.

Per Arneberg not only lent 31 works to the McMullen show, he also willingly became Netzer's calling card, her collateral, even. When Netzer refers to "your show" in talking to Arneberg about the BC exhibition, it's more than mere diplomacy.

A Norwegian-born businessman based in Greenwich, Connecticut, Arneberg buys ships from Russia, builds ships in China, and owns a shipping line based in Bermuda. He is nonetheless as down-to-earth as his Greek business brethren are flamboyant. A tall, handsome, portly man, he strides through the streets of Oslo with the kind of rumpled blue duffel bag a schoolboy might carry. He's a Norwegian shipping tycoon. Modest, plain-spoken, casually dressed, he could have been scripted by Garrison Keillor - except that he's on his cell phone constantly and globally, dictating, say, faxes to Moscow about how a change in transportation ministers there might affect his activities in Russia.

Arnstein Arneberg, who was one of the designers of Oslo's red-brick, twin-towered City Hall, wanted Munch to create the murals inside. Politics intervened; the City Council wouldn't award Munch the commission, and, says Per Arneberg, the painter never spoke to the senior Arneberg again.

Per Arneberg still uses the house his father designed for his family as an Oslo base. It oozes Scandinavian charm. Perched on a hill near Frogner Park, it's a rambling, barn-red, white-trimmed wooden structure with carved flowers over the front door. Inside, it's furnished with rag rugs, painted period furniture, lace curtains, corner fireplaces, wooden walls - and art.

Arneberg acquires actively. Before a scouting trip to the National Gallery with the BC crew, he takes them to the Kaare Bertsen Gallery across the street, where he lifts an 1895 Munch lithograph, Self-Portrait With Skeleton Arm, right off the wall. "This Munch I bought," he explains, tucking it under his arm. The gallery price sheet lists it at about $20,000. Now part of the BC show, it's a classic Symbolist image: the artist's disembodied head floating in a black void, with a skeletal arm lying horizontally across the bottom, the instrument of creation stilled. On the arm is the artist's signature.

The image is a reminder of ever-present death, a theme that, in art, dates from antiquity and carries through to the present: Jasper Johns appropriated the Munch arm for use in his Savarin lithographs of 1977-81, even adding the initials "E.M." to make the point. Munch's art has also inspired later varieties of Expressionism, including the German Neo-Expressionists like Baselitz and Kiefer, who, says Claude Cernuschi, "wanted to come to terms with their Germanic heritage through reconnecting with Expressionism. Munch, of course, was a primary influence, the father of Expressionism along with van Gogh and Gauguin."

Leaving the lithograph on the dealer's desk, Arneberg and his entourage cross the street to case the National Gallery, a stately but decaying structure with lousy lighting, a copy of a Michelangelo on the main staircase, and loads of Scandinavian landscapes of varying quality. They at least put Munch in perspective.

In 1889, the artist wrote a credo: "One should not paint interiors peopled by reading men and knitting women. One ought to deal instead with living human beings capable of breathing and feeling, suffering and loving." Others in Norway were headed in that direction. In the National Gallery is a giant painting by Christian Krohg, one of Munch's teachers, of a country girl being sold into prostitution by the police. (Munch actually painted part of it.) Sordid though the subject is, it's also sentimental, a trap Munch didn't fall into. His anxious souls are more stunned than outwardly hysterical.

In the room devoted to Munch are such gems as The Dance of Life, in which a man is ensnared in the red train of a woman's dress as they sway against a background that includes a Munch trademark: a setting sun casting a phallic shadow on the water. "They're moving like robots," says Howe, "sexualized by nature." Here, too, is the famous Puberty, an image of a thin, nude girl sitting on the edge of her bed, arms crossed over her lap, a huge bluish shadow looming threateningly behind her. Arneberg has strong opinions on every rock, every birch tree, every fjord and figure in every Munch painting. "People say Munch was best before 1910. But if I could have one painting in this room, it would be that one," he says, pointing to the 1916 Man in the Cabbage Field.

Munch, says Arneberg, actually beat his paintings, because he thought of them as misbehaving children. He also let his dog urinate on them, to add to the dribbly effect he liked, becoming a Jackson Pollock before the fact. Netzer makes out a wish list of seven paintings in the room, to present in her meeting with the gallery's director.

Leaving the National Gallery, Arneberg picks up his own Munch across the street and proceeds to lug the unwrapped work through town, at one point casually propping it against a wall in a bookstore, leaving it untended while he examines a new book about the City Hall his father designed.

By the time Netzer and her team have their appointment with Sidsel Helliesen, the National Gallery's acting director, and Marit Lange, its curator, Arneberg has flown off to Tokyo for a day and a half, on business. Helliesen cuts to the chase. "Does your museum have a collection?" she asks - meaning, what can you do for us? When the Norwegians learn about BC's non-collection, Helliesen points out that 122,000 people visited a Munch show she loaned to the Pitti Palace in Florence the previous year, "but we got back a great show of 15th-to-17th-century Italian paintings from them," she says bluntly. "You have nothing to give us back. Unfortunately, it's become that kind of world."

Furthermore, she won't lend BC anything hanging on her gallery's walls - so much for Netzer's wish list - and she chides the BC contingent for not giving her much lead time. "You should have come here a year ago."

The door's not completely closed, though. In addition to the superstar paintings upstairs, there are plenty of Munchs in basement storage that might be up for grabs. Helliesen dispatches Lange to accompany us there. On the pull-out racks hang later Munchs, including a 1919 painting of a black-and-white horse plowing a field and a 1915 Bathers. "It's not very charming, is it?" Lange asks rhetorically. Like other Munch scholars in Norway, she dismisses the late work. Her view of the 1890s Portrait of Aase Norregaard, which is in the BC show, is equally blunt. "I hate it," she says. "It's so awkward."

"I found it jarring at first," says Howe. "It took me a while to warm up to it. But it's a powerful picture, something that jumps off the canvas. It's fun to find something of that vintage that's still challenging and off-putting." Many Munchs of the same era have long since gained acceptance; Aase Norregaard, with her bold stance, straightforward gaze, and queasy color in the background, is still a shocker.

"I think it's important," says Cernuschi, "to include works that are not usually associated with the Munch canon, works off the beaten path. It's also important to exhibit the variety of different images that encompasses the breadth of Munch's responses to women. Vampire and Harpy have obvious misogynistic overtones. The portrait of Aase Norregaard, however, bespeaks friendship and sympathy."

Munch's own negative experiences with women colored his perception of them, Cernuschi says. But Munch was also a product of an era when artists felt they had to choose between a conventional family life and their art, a time when women were demanding greater autonomy and men were reacting against that, and the concept of the femme fatale was pervasive.

Once out the National Gallery door, Cernuschi optimistically notes: "We can turn a difficult situation to our advantage. Those pictures in storage are very unusual; they're never seen."

"There are at least 10 we could ask for," Howe agrees. "We'll prioritize."

While they ponder their next move, Arneberg, back from Tokyo, takes us on an excursion to Asgardstrand, a tiny town on the Oslo Fjord that was Munch's summer home and refuge for over 20 years. "Walking in Asgardstrand is like walking among my paintings," the painter said.

"Cozy" is a favorite Norwegian word, one Arneberg uses often in describing Asgardstrand's little red-and-white gingerbread houses with tile roofs, all crooked and angled. Munch's house is a tiny, rustic cottage, currently painted ocher, with low, beamed ceilings and a waterside location.

Arneberg points out the precise houses and linden trees that Munch painted and the location of the jetty that turns up repeatedly in pictures featuring little girls. After touring the town, the group repairs to the Asgardstrand Hotel, where we run into the influential art dealer Einar-Tore Ulving, who brokered the return of the National Gallery's Scream after it was stolen during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. It turned out that part of the negotiations took place in this very hotel, of which Ulving is part-owner. (Briefly and mistakenly arrested in conjunction with the theft, Ulving later appeared in a BBC documentary about it.)

Since he has unexpectedly encountered a client - Arneberg - Ulving makes a delivery, running to his car and returning with a Munch etching, Self-Portrait With Model. He's already sold the rare work to Arneberg, and it's in the BC show. "It fits into Munch's series of polar images of himself with a woman," says Howe, "where they're entirely separate." Ulving then advises Netzer and Arneberg on their approach to the Munch Museum: Ask for one thing at a time; don't ask for anything that doesn't already have its own crate for travel, because lack of one is an excuse not to let a work go or to have the borrower pay to have a case custom-built.

Netzer also pays a call on Tove Munch, a cheery woman whose former husband is related to the painter and who takes care of Ekely, the 12-acre wooded property Munch bought outside Oslo in 1916. Here he lived and worked in peace and privacy until his death in 1944. After his passing, his villa and most of his ateliers were torn down - indication that he was even then not exactly idolized in his native country - leaving only one large sky-lit studio. Munch would hang paintings in the trees here, sometimes leaving them outside for years, because, Tove Munch says, "he wanted them to look a little destroyed. He wrote in a letter to a friend, `To be a Munch, a painting has to have holes.' " The neighbors actually shot holes in some of the paintings in the trees, which also suffered from bird droppings. The paintings that were at Ekely when Munch died eventually went to the Munch Museum, and Ekely itself became run down. Tove Munch is hoping to get an American Friends of Munch group started, to raise funds to restore it.

Arneberg is present for the all-important meeting with Eggum at the Munch Museum: The strategy on all sides is wistfulness. "I have a collection, not so big, but it could be the nucleus of the show," says Arneberg. "Any help you can give us will be much appreciated."

"We are a very poor museum," Eggum responds. "A normal museum" - in Norway, at least - "gets all its money from the state. We get only 5.5 million kroner" - about $600,000 a year - "from the city. The rest we earn ourselves." The message is, he's going to charge Netzer for any loans, which the National Gallery would not. Museums, which used to lend each other works gratis, are increasingly charging rental fees. "We have been begging the city for a new carpet," Eggum says, indicating where any forthcoming funds might go. The carpet in the galleries is indeed frayed and rumpled.

Netzer tries to entice Eggum with the idea that "we organize our exhibitions from an interdisciplinary viewpoint. We'd involve philosophers and historians in this one." Howe presents a laptop computer version of what the show might include, cautiously prefacing the series of images with "This is only a fantasy, of course."

"In America," Howe adds, "the late works aren't as well known as they should be." Eggum grunts noncommittally.

The director asks about BC's climate control, a promising sign. "It's state of the art," Netzer says. "We just opened in 1993." She reassures him on the matter of insurance, too. "The federal indemnity on the Caravaggio was, at that time, the highest amount our government had ever insured an Old Master for," she says. (She's prohibited from revealing how much.) The federal indemnity program will insure major loans for the Munch show, too.

Eggum takes us into storage, pointedly mentioning that the Japanese paid for the facility. In return, Japan gets three Munchs a year for 15 years, a deal not unlike the one Boston's Museum of Fine Arts struck with the Japanese city of Nagoya; the MFA lends shows from its storerooms and receives hefty fees in return.

Arneberg has invited a group including Eggum for dinner that night at one of Oslo's best restaurants, Feinschmecker. He meets us outside for a coaching session first. "Let me act as broker for you," he advises Netzer. "Don't even bring up [the loans] tonight." So dinner is a jolly, sociable, non-business event, where the participants get to know and trust one another over copious amounts of wine and fish.

There had been one other scouting trip, to see the huge murals Munch created in the Aula, the stately University of Oslo hall where the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded until 1989 and where concerts and ceremonies are held. Arneberg remembers his mother taking him to Bach concerts there when he was 7. "It was dreadfully boring," he says, "but it stuck. I think if you have [music] as a child, it stays with you."

The Aula is shut tight when Arneberg takes Netzer and her colleagues there, but he calmly talks the caretaker into unlocking the room, which is glorious. Here, from 1909 to 1916, Munch created a series of allegorical murals in a simplified, hieratic style and on a heroic scale. History is personified as a wise old man teaching a little boy, the lesson set against a background of fjord and rocks. Alma Mater is a mother and her children, symbols of the future. In the center, warming this mythic world, is The Sun, a white, glowing orb whose colorful rays shoot out in all directions, as nude men and women turn to worship it.

The Sun is part of the Aula wall and can't go anywhere. But the Munch Museum owns versions of it, studies for the Aula murals, and Arneberg says, "If you had one as the first thing you see in the show, then, boom! What a great opening. We should be very nice when we ask [Eggum] for it."

They are, and they succeed. In the end, after writing her official requests to the museums, Netzer nabs six works from the National Gallery and 18 from the Munch Museum - including a version of The Sun. But, she says, "they were going to lend us one so huge it couldn't be shipped in the cargo hold of a direct flight from Oslo to America, and it wouldn't fit in the museum, either. So we opted for a smaller, equally fine one, which needed restoration. Per paid for that."

The Sun won't open the show, as Arneberg had suggested. It's the burst of light at the very end - "a ray of hope," Netzer says, "after the gloom and doom."

Click here for advertiser information
Boston Globe Extranet
Extending our newspaper services to the web
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company

Return to the home page
of The Globe Online