Tuesday 12 November 2019

Oslo: The city of screams

Cenral Oslo from Ekeberg Hill Norway
Cenral Oslo from Ekeberg Hill Norway
The Opera House

Nick Trend

As a new Edvard Munch exhibition opens closer to home, Nick Trend explores the Norwegian city which inspired his most famous painting

I am standing in front of a rather swish restaurant at Ekeberg, a high bluff on the outskirts of Oslo, looking west towards the sunset.

In the distance is the city centre with its new, brilliant-white waterside opera house, catching the late-evening light and sinking like the bridge of a half-submerged ship into the dark water of the Oslofjord.

I am hoping for a fiery sunset -- something to conjure up a little more drama from such a serene prospect. For it was here in 1892 that Edvard Munch found himself walking along the 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," Munch wrote in his diary.

"My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety -- and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

That scream became 'The Scream', and if Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile is the image most emblematic of Renaissance self-confidence, Munch's portrait (or is it a self-portrait?) of a contorted, hollow-mouthed, skull-like figure has came to symbolise agonised uncertainty in a godless, modern world.

Would I find any insight into Munch's moment of revelation? Inspiring though the view was, the sky was in a quiet mood that night, and after a while the only cry of nature I could hear was a faint rumbling in my stomach.

So I turned and made my way up to the restaurant for some fresh asparagus and grilled scallops instead.

The next day, standing in front of that first, original version of 'The Scream', down the road at the Munch Museum (there are four in all, three in Oslo), I realised I may have been misreading it.

Is the scream of the title coming from the open-mouthed figure in the foreground, as I had always assumed? Or is he instead blocking his ears to blot out an inhuman shriek coming from elsewhere?

That seems to be what Munch implies in his diary: "It seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked."

Also in the museum is another great painting with some key ambiguities -- 'Starry Night' -- a version of which is currently on show at London's Tate Modern exhibition devoted to Munch.

It's another distant view of Oslo, probably the view from the top of the steps at his studio on a hill in Ekely, to the west of the city. In the foreground is a snow-laden landscape, with the city lights and another glimpse of the Oslofjord beyond. This time the sky is purple-green, flecked with a scattering of rather dim stars.

It seems a seductive account of one of those beautiful, still, luminous winter nights of the north. But look for longer and you notice a shadow stretching out across the snow.

The museum's notes on the painting interpret the shadow as Munch's own and suggest the painting is a melancholic reflection on mortality. Perhaps it is the dark, quiet night after the lurid sunset of 'The Scream'.

It is also likely to be a response to Ibsen's 'John Gabriel Borkman', the story of a corrupt banker who, at the end of the play, walks out into the snow to die.

If so, it's a reminder of the close cultural links between Munch and Ibsen, who, along with Grieg, and remarkably for such a small country, had such an enormous influence on wider European culture at the end of the 19th century.

Many of Munch's paintings refer to scenes in Ibsen's plays, and his portrait of the playwright was used on the playbill at the Paris premiere of 'John Gabriel Borkman'.

More famous, and also at the Munch Museum, is his 1898 portrait, 'Ibsen at the Grand Café', which captures the grey mane and lowering eyes of the writer in his favourite seat.

The Grand Café in the Grand Hotel on Olso's main avenue, Karl Johans Gate, was, and still is, at the social and cultural heart of the city. Having spent many years in Italy and Germany, Ibsen and Munch were both habitués in the 1890s; Munch was staying there and Ibsen went in each day.

They weren't soulmates, but they were on good terms, until one evening the painter was approached about his bill by a waiter.

There are various versions of what happens next, but it seems that Munch did not have enough money on him, and he gestured towards Ibsen, who was sitting at another table, suggesting that he would vouch for his good credit.

Instead, Ibsen appears to have settled the bill and, in doing so, offended Munch. "Well, Ibsen, we will not be seeing each other again," he said, and they never did.

It wasn't the only embarrassing episode for Munch. Around this time he was thrown out of a party at Engebret Café after police were called. It was an unsavoury incident during which he, apparently unjustly, accused a waiter of stealing his scarf and gloves. Munch had to resign from the Norwegian Art Association as a result.

Perhaps it was another moment when he sensed the infinite scream, or perhaps it was just the schnapps.

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