by Roderick Conway Morris

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KODE Art Museums, Bergen, Norway
At the Deathbed by Edvard Munch, 1895

Haunting Vision

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 July 2022


'The fact is one sees with different eyes at different times. One sees differently in the morning than in the evening. The way one sees is also dependent upon one's state of mind and how one otherwise feels,' wrote Edvard Munch in a sketchbook.

Such contrasts in mood are perfectly illustrated by two of the artist's pictures: 'Spring Day of Karl Johan' (1890) and 'Evening of Karl Johan' (1892). Both were painted on the main avenue in Norway's capital Kristiania (which reverted to its old name of Oslo in 1925) from almost exactly the same spot but looking in different directions.

The former is a sparkling, sun-drenched, pointillist vista of the thoroughfare imbued with a holiday atmosphere; the second a nightmarish, paranoid nocturnal vision of zombie-like figures crowding the pavement, which recalls an entry in the artist's 'illustrated diary' written in the third person: 'The people passing him looked so strange and unfamiliar and he thought they were looking at him - staring at him - all these faces - so pale in the evening light.'

Both these canvases belong to the Rasmus Meyer Collection at the Bergen Museum in Norway, a unique gathering of paintings that the local mill owner and art lover Meyer built up during his and Munch's lifetime, most of which were bought directly from the artist. Although individual pieces from the Collection have been loaned to exhibitions every so often, for the first time ever almost half of the Munch paintings it contains are on show outside Norway, in the richly revealing 'Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen' at the Courtauld in London.

Edvard Munch's early years were not auspicious. He was born on a farm in December 1863, the second of five children. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. Nine years later his sister Sophie, to whom he was devoted, succumbed to the same disease. He himself was rheumatic and sickly. After the death of his wife his widowed father sank into a chronic state of depression.

As Munch later wrote: 'Disease, insanity and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.' And no canvas better records more poignantly this melancholy family history than the Bergen Collection's unforgettable 'At the Deathbed' (1895).

Even as a child Munch manifested a gift for drawing, encouraged by an aunt who painted landscapes. Although he subsequently received little formal training, at the age of just twenty his painting 'Morning' (1884) was accepted for the National Annual Autumn Exhibition in Kristiania. This clearly Impressionist-inspired canvas invited a hostile response from traditionalists, but was defended by a leading art critic, who maintained that the young artist's talents were 'obvious enough to anyone with a pair of eyes'. Indeed, Munch relished the controversy, as he was to welcome similarly mixed responses to his work later in his career, for bringing his work to public attention.

Morning was bought by the Naturalist artist Frits Thaulow, with whose help Munch travelled to Paris for the first time to broaden his artistic education. He returned there in 1889, this time with a state bursary, when the canvas was shown at the Exposition Universelle.

The wealthy Bergen flour-mill owner Rasmus Meyer (born nearly five years before the artist) had been collecting decorative artworks and traditional Norwegian art for many years. It was only in around 1905 that he began to acquire contemporary pieces. Although he found Munch's work somewhat outré, he bought his first picture by him, Kristiania Bohemians, in 1906. However, it was destroyed in a fire aboard the ship transporting it to Bergen.

But the following year Meyer again had the opportunity to acquire a Munch when the National Gallery declined to buy 'Morning' from the estate of the late Frits Thaulow. This was to prove an historic moment in the founding of Meyer's Munch collection, which would in due course consist of 44 paintings and over 100 prints.

In 1908 Munch, who was in financial difficulties, was forced to deposit five pictures with a bank as security for a loan. Meyer stepped in and bought all five for 1,500 kroner, although the artist maintained that each one was worth as much. The following year the mill owner bought four more and a selection of prints.

By 1909 Meyer was spending most of his art budget on Munchs and in the spring of that year he wrote to the artist explaining that, by buying key works, he intended 'to give a full account of your development, so that anyone who visits me wanting to study your art will be able to trace it through all its stages' - an aim Meyer achieved triumphantly through his judicious selection of canvases, increasingly guided by Munch himself.

In 1889 Munch had started to spend the summer in the coastal town of Asgardstrand and it was here that Munch became, as it were, 'Munch'. It was on the rocky shore in Asgardstrand that his sister posed for 'Summer Night. Inger on the Beach', for the first painting in which the artist boldly used form and colour to express thought and emotion. With this picture, he wrote in a journal, he had 'finally taken leave of impressionism and realism' and began to develop an utterly distinctive trademark style. It was also in 1889 that he had his first solo exhibition.

In 1891 Munch produced the first of four versions of 'Melancholy' - which a prominent painter declared to be the first Symbolist work created by a Norwegian artist - the final and most finished version of which (1894-96) was acquired by Meyer in 1909. Other classic Symbolist works followed, including 'Evening on Karl Johan' (1892) and his 'Woman in Three Stages' (1894). Munch discussed the latter with his friend Henrik Ibsen and it appears that the three female characters in the dramatist's last work, 'When We Dead Awaken' (1899), were inspired by the three women in the painting.

From around 1889 onwards Munch began to conceive of his major Symbolist canvases as a sequence that he described as the 'Frieze of Life: A Poem about Life, Love and Death'. As the art historian Jens Thiis later wrote: 'In Munch's own conception, his entire body of work, with the exception of the portraits and landscapes, amounts to a continuous 'frieze' on the theme of life. One work gives rise to another, even at a different point in time, and all of it is an expression of his outlook on life.'

The Frieze of Life was exhibited in various forms at various times, being displayed, for example, at the Berlin Secession in 1902, under the title 'From the Modern Life of the Soul', divided into sections called Love, Angst and Death. The sequence never reached a final form but Meyer's acquisition of such major works as 'Jealousy', 'Melancholy', 'At the Deathbed' and 'Woman in Three Stages', has left the Bergen Collection with one of the most powerful groupings of the kind that Munch envisaged.

The Collection also contains important landscapes, such as 'Moonlight on the Beach' (1892) and portraits, including 'Marie Helene Holmboe' and 'Walther Rathnau' (1907).

The new mill that Rasmus Meyer built in 1900 was the largest in Scandinavia and provided a quarter of Norway's flour. With the prospect of war looming in 1914 and a steep rise in grain prices, Meyer was forced to increase his prices, for which he was savagely attacked in the press. The public onslaught preyed on his mind and the following year he had a nervous breakdown and was confined to a sanatorium. At the beginning of 1916, he took his own life at fifty-seven.

Meyer's children, Gerda Nyqvist and Finn, quickly announced their intention to honour their father's wishes by donating the bulk of his collections to the city of Bergen, with the condition that they be kept together and housed in a purpose-built gallery. The construction of this was delayed by the First War and a devastating fire in the town's historic centre, which left 2,800 people homeless. But in March 1924 a handsome neo-baroque building with modern top-lit galleries on the upper floor was finally inaugurated.

There is a lively historic rivalry between the proud Hanseatic city of Bergen (until the1830s the country's largest town) and Oslo. Owing to the former's cultural conservatism, the avant-garde works of the Oslo-based artist were not initially received well there. However, once the influential Meyer had so enthusiastically taken the artist up, Munch cheerfully wrote to a friend that he now had hopes that even Bergen would 'realise that there's more to Scandinavia than theatre and herrings'.

Tellingly, on the very next day after the opening of Meyer's splendid Bergen Gallery, the National Museum in Oslo, which had found itself in direct competition with Meyer when buying Munchs, inaugurated a new wing with, for the first time, a room entirely devoted to the artist.

Until 5 September at Courtauld, London; 020 3947 7711;

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024