Radiant light fills the first room of the Courtauld Gallery’s new exhibition, dedicated to the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). In an early portrait, his sister Inger squints against the sun, and though at points the paintings revert to a more familiar murky gloom, the exhibition ends with the life-giving glow of bright sunlight, drenching strong, healthy bodies in Bathing Boys (1904-5) and Youth (1908).
It turns out that despite his fame, we know Munch only slightly in the UK, where he is synonymous with darkness, anguish and existential angst. It’s a perception smartly corrected by this small but revelatory exhibition, comprising 18 paintings never before seen together outside Scandinavia.
The paintings are on loan from KODE Art Museums in Bergen, Norway, which has one of the world’s foremost Munch collections, acquired by the industrialist Rasmus Meyer between 1906 and his death in 1916.
With great care, he assembled a galerie des perles, in which he collected a few artists, in depth, notably Munch. The two men got off to a slightly rocky start, with Munch feeling ripped off after their first transaction in which Meyer persuaded him to sell five paintings for 1,500 kroner, a sum Munch had originally expected to get per painting. Thus aggrieved, Munch insisted on meeting in person, a decisive step that fostered a close acquaintance between the two men, with Meyer’s collection the fruit of their collaboration.
Meyer took his own life in 1916, and his children donated his collection, then unparalleled as a representation of Norwegian contemporary art, to the city of Bergen where since 1924 it has occupied its own purpose-built gallery. The collection spans three decades of Munch’s career, from early impressionist-inspired experiments in the 1880s, through the famous Frieze of Life pictures from the 1890s, to the sparse, vibrant portraits of later years.
For the next three months, the paintings make their home in another great private collection. One of the joys of the refurbished Courtauld Gallery is that temporary exhibitions are reached via the impressionists and post-impressionists installed in the Great Room; many of these artists Munch got to know during his time in Paris, and Monet’s shimmering light, and Seurat’s staccato brushstrokes, are echoed in Munch’s Spring Day on Karl Johan, 1890, and in the luminously painted Morning, 1884.
One of the earliest works on show here, and one of the first to be acquired by Meyer, Morning is an accomplished piece by a painter who had received no formal training, only the guidance of Kristiania’s (now Oslo) small community of painters. An ordinary young woman looks distractedly towards the window as she gets dressed, and though it would ultimately bring Munch recognition, and was exhibited in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, it received mixed reviews at first, due to its lowly subject matter, and its rough, unfinished appearance.
Its complex surface is unusually suggestive of physical and mental effort in a painting of precocious virtuosity. Light is its true subject, treated in the painting’s many white and translucent surfaces that shape and erase form in myriad ways. The carafe and glass are only just visible, as ghostly as a Morandi still life; the curtain behind, the shelf and tray beneath, are each more substantial, and differently textured, worked within a tightly confined palette.
It is rough with accretions of paint, and pockmarked as if weathered, or corroded in some way. This may be literally the case, explained Line Daatland, Director of Collections and Exhibitions, when earlier this year she showed me around KODE’s conservation studio.
“Munch often treated his canvases very roughly. He kept them outside, and there are paintings with bird droppings on them, and traces of insects, etc. And he experimented a lot with different binders [the material used to carry pigment, such as linseed oil], and combinations of binders, and also non-traditional pigments.”
For the curatorial and conservation staff at KODE, the Courtauld show has provided an opportunity to examine their Munch holdings in unprecedented detail. Prior to being transported to London, each painting was removed from its frame – in some cases, for the first time – and its condition assessed. Repairs were carried out where necessary and the physical structure of each work was looked at in detail.
One of the most significant interventions has been the removal of varnish, which in nearly every case was applied at a later date, adding a protective but shiny finish unlikely to have met with Munch’s approval. Before coming to London, the old varnish was removed, and replaced with a matt varnish to protect the paint.
Summer Night. Inger on the Beach, 1889, was in the process of having two thick layers of varnish removed when I saw it in Bergen. Now, with the old varnish removed, Summer Nights more clearly echoes Morning, and the paintings are hung opposite one another in London to make the connection.
The white of Inger’s dress reflects the glowing colours of the rocky beach, its form echoing the smooth contours of the stones around her. It has an almost palpable atmosphere, which Daatland says makes it a pivotal painting in Munch’s early career. “It’s the first painting where you can see that Munch starts to simplify both shapes and colours to achieve a certain atmosphere or mood in a painting.”
The eery, magical quality of Norwegian light is a crucial tool for Munch, and in Summer Nights he begins to manipulate naturalistic landscapes to mirror a passionate inner world. The painting anticipates the most famous period of Munch’s career, dominated by the Frieze of Life paintings, the most famous of which is The Scream, 1893.
Characterised by dark colours, and high emotional intensity, Munch’s often elongated, distorted figures, depict themes and “soul-states” in paintings that together form a narrative of human experience steeped in symbolism and mystery, such as his enigmatic canvas Woman in Three Stages, 1894. Death, love, jealousy, and melancholy recur in scenes that Munch said were meant to “help others to understand their own lives”.
If this carries an echo of Munch’s similarly troubled contemporary Van Gogh, the exhibition draws repeated connections between the two artists. Evening on Karl Johan, 1892, is a highlight in the wonderfully conceived second room, and the curators, with characteristic high regard for their visitors, rely on viewers to make the connection with Spring Day on Karl Johan, 1890, seen in the previous gallery, an astonishing transformation in style comparable to Van Gogh’s chameleon-like development.
Like Van Gogh, Munch was alive to the influence of other artists, and in Evening on Karl Johan, the anxiety of urban isolation is rendered in dark colours and gaunt, skeletal figures that recall those of Toulouse-Lautrec, not to mention Van Gogh himself. The full-frontal pose of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 – don’t miss it on your way out – is regularly repurposed by Munch, and likewise Gauguin’s flattened planes, simplified forms and distinctive colour contrasts.
Following a nervous breakdown in 1908, Munch was admitted to a clinic, where he began working in the vibrant, loose style that closes this exhibition. In figures of glowing good health, painted in sparse, almost abstract gestures, he returns with renewed energy to the regenerative powers of paint and light.
Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen is at the Courtauld Gallery, London, to 4 September