On the trail of Munch in Oslo
With swirling Nordic light, dark and mysterious fjords and soul-stirring views, Oslo is ready-made for an expressionist Munch painting. In the Norwegian capital, Norway’s most revered artist lived, loved, painted and did constant battle with his inner demons. Strike out on this Munch-focused tour, which takes you from his first scream to his final studio.
Ready to scream
Climb up to the lookout at Ekeberg Hill (ekebergparken.com), just southeast of central Oslo, and the whole city spreads picturesquely before you: from the architecturally innovative Opera House to the inky fjord and islands beyond. On a sombre winter day, a shiver seems to run down Oslo’s spine, draining the scene of colour. In midsummer, the light makes the city shine in all its short-lived glory. At any time of year, Oslo is a true Nordic beauty, swinging effortlessly from the urban to the outdoors. This is plain to see up here, where locals admire broad views as they hike along trails twisting through pine, fir and ash forest, occasionally stopping to ponder Dalí and Rodin nudes or James Turrell’s colour-changing Skyspace in the sculpture park.
Join the walkers and you too will be captivated by the vista from this bluff, which has prompted many an artist to pick up a paintbrush – none more so than Munch. The Munch Spot (ekebergparken.com/en/pakke/22) marks the lookout that inspired The Scream. Recalling a walk here with two friends in 1892, the artist summed up the moment thus: '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. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.'
The skyline has changed somewhat since then, but you can still experience a ‘Munch moment’ at the viewpoint that fuelled the artist’s most famous work. Step inside the larger-than-life frame, created by performance artist Marina Abramović, and you can, in the spirit of Munch, scream to your heart’s content.
Munch on canvas
The Scream (1893) might have its origins up on Ekeberg, but the real deal – one of four originals: two pastels, two paintings – now hangs in the astounding Nasjonalgalleriet. Take tram 19 back into central Oslo, hopping off at Kontraskjæret. From here it's a 10-minute amble north to the gallery. In the Munch room, The Scream grabs all the attention. Capturing the existentialist angst of the age, this acid trip of a painting mesmerises all who behold it. In the background, a hallucinatory, fiery sky shifts above the hills and fjord, in the foreground stands a haggard, ghostly figure, its mouth agape in a silent scream and hands held up to its face in fright. Evoking the anxiety and solitude of the world on canvas, the painting is a once-seen-never-forgotten icon of expressionist art – one that mines the depths of Munch’s troubled soul.
Born in 1863, Edvard Munch had a disturbed childhood in Oslo, then Kristiania, which was plagued by illness, insanity, poverty and death. He lost his mother and beloved sister, Sophie, to tuberculosis at an early age, events which profoundly affected his preoccupation with life and death. Though a doctor, his deeply religious, near-fanatical father struggled to keep the family above the breadline and remained emotionally detached towards his son. And so the seeds of anxiety and isolation were sown. 'My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art,' said Munch.
An ode to the artist’s seminal works, the Munch Room at the Nasjonalgalleriet also showcases paintings such as Madonna (1894) and the mortality-obsessed Frieze of Life series.
Trams depart frequently from nearby Stortinget to make the 15-minute trundle east to another unmissable gallery, brimming with Munch’s art: the Munchmuseet. Munch gifted many works to the museum’s permanent collection, the world’s largest collection of his paintings, sketches and drawings. Plans for an ultra-modern new museum on the Bjørvika waterfront are in the pipeline for 2020 but, for now, the excellent rotating exhibitions speak for themselves. At any one time you might glimpse such emotive works as the snowy Starry Night (1922-24) and Vampire (1893–95), otherwise known as Love and Pain, which depicts a red-headed, Medusa-like woman consuming her lover. The Sick Child (1925) alludes to Munch’s memory of his sister’s premature death aged 15. A similar sense of doom is tangible in works like The Dance of Life (1925) and Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43), which Munch painted shortly before his death.
Karl Johans Gate
Munch’s work is not merely confined to gallery walls, however. Head back into central Oslo and you can get a sense of the man and his work with a stroll along Karl Johans Gate, the city’s stately, mid-19th-century thoroughfare, linking Oslo Central Station to the Royal Palace. This was one of Munch’s haunts when he did venture into society, and he immortalised it in Evening on Karl Johan Street (1892), which shows spectral, hat-wearing figures parading along it in a death-march-like trance. Munch cut his teeth as a young artist on this street, renting his first studio and staging his first exhibitions here.
In the Grand Hotel at No. 31 you’ll find the Grand Café, which opened its doors in 1874 and swiftly became a much-loved hangout of artists and bohemians in the late 1800s. Word has it that Munch once offered the painting Sick Girl in exchange for 100 steak dinners here. The cafe was a second home to Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, who came here every day for lunch – a sandwich, beer and schnapps – and met Munch’s acquaintance. The artist captured the moment in his painting of the writer at his regular window table in Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café (1898).
A few paces away at No. 47 is the University of Oslo's ceremonial hall, the Aula (www.uio.no/english/about/culture/aula), home to a series of Munch's expressionistic murals. Heavy drinking, public brawling and tormented love affairs pushed Munch over the edge in 1908; he suffered partial paralysis and started hearing hallucinatory voices. Following a stint in a sanatorium, he returned feeling more hopeful. His newfound optimism is reflected in the murals, which he created from 1909 to 1916, the centrepiece being a giant sunburst. Try to snag tickets for one of the public concerts held here to view the works.
Munch’s Oslo homes
From nearby Stortorvet, it’s a short tram ride north to Olaf Ryes plass and the neighbourhood of Grünerløkka. Right on the Akerselva (Aker River), this is the neighbourhood where Munch spent most of his childhood. The one-time factory district is now a pocket of contemporary cool, brimming with trendy bars, boutiques, second-hand shops and microbreweries, many of which are housed in revamped 19th-century buildings. While Munch’s former apartments are off limits, you can still take an interesting wander around the streets he once frequented. Stepping across the river and heading up the hill brings you to Vår Frelsers Gravlund, the graveyard where Munch lies buried alongside other notables including feted writers Ibsen and Bjørnson.
Out on its lonesome on the city’s western fringes is the Ekely estate (munchs-ekely.no/english), which you can reach from central Oslo by taking tram 13, and alighting at Abbediengen. Munch spent the last 28 years of his life here. Though wealthy and revered by this time, his one true companion remained his prolific paintbrush, which he used to convey his constant inspiration from the natural surrounds. He painted in every mood and moment: in autumn and spring, by moonlight and snowfall. He painted self-portraits and animal portraits, nudes and scenes of elegant ladies swanning around the gardens. In total, some 1008 paintings and 4443 drawings were discovered here after his death in 1944. On Saturdays from July to September, a Munchmuseet combination ticket allows visitors to explore his former studio, but in winter the place falls silent. And that seems fitting in the location where the angst-ridden creator of The Scream finally found lasting peace.
Make it happen
A number of budget airlines operate direct flights to Oslo including Norwegian (norwegian.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com). A good public transport system, with trams and underground (T-bane) trains, link up the major Munch sights, but some can be covered on foot. To save, invest in the Oslo Pass (visitoslo.com/en/activities-and-attractions/oslo-pass), covering the cost of entry to most museums as well as public transport.