Stopover at the Munchmuseet
The paintings were baffling. The fact that they were also exactly right made the bafflement itself baffling. I fell immediately in love — everyone else seemed to, too—but had no idea what to do with this love.
It was obvious that these forest scenes presented inner vistas (though they were probably also literal landscapes.) But what were my grounds for this certainty? The anthropomorphic tree trunks, writhing, embracing, slouching, bending over to whisper, propping each other up — sure, but somehow that wasn’t enough.
What explained my sense that this snowscene was painted from the pines’ perspective — that the trees frame the vista the way I might frame a question to myself? (Is the tree closest to us leaning into the painted space to see better?)
Why couldn’t I tear my gaze away from the scene below — one you might call a spectacular failure of realism? The trunks seem to be floating, shadowless, with inept green horizontals for foliage. Reading this foliage as the edge of a swamp, I thought for a while that some of the trees were reflections in water.
That’s how I felt about so many of the paintings: I loved them, but I couldn’t tell which way was up.
The works were sparkling with emotional charge — but I didn’t even know if this charge was positive or negative. And it was anything but neutral. That tree stump in the foreground is surely expressive — but is it aghast, dejected, whimsical?
As my frustration mounted, I started to notice its sources. I came to the Munchmuseet knowing I’d write a blog post about my experience. I was looking for something to say — instead, I found overwhelming presence. I’d come armed with readymade admiration — but the paintings demanded to be seen on their own terms.
I’d expected a locked gate — to my frustration, I found an open door.
I photographed the paintings and felt relief. Caught on my phone screen, in the palm of my hand, they were tamed. Their obviousness, their presence were there for all to see. Photography confirmed the rightness of judgments I couldn’t quite articulate.
But by this very taming, something was lost. I realized that what had baffled me most was also what drew me to the paintings — some unresolved tension, questionmark, ambiguity. Something in the space between drawing away from the paint and coming towards it — something in the uncertainty about where to stand.
It turns out bafflement was pretty much exactly the audience response Karl Ove Knausgård, who curated the exhibition, intended. He chose unknown pictures to get us “to experience Munch as if viewing him for the first time.” Bafflement, a failure to take it all in — combined with a striking sense of immediacy, rightness, presence. Munch viewed for the first time.
In fact, I had seen Munch for the first time here — seven years earlier. (Both times, I was only stopping by, on my way elsewhere. This year I had a seven-hour stopover in Oslo before my flight to Warsaw; in 2010, I was heading up into Norwegian mountains.) I came away from that exhibition with the sense that Munch’s life had been a progression from darkness to light — and from electrifying to lifeless paintings. I’m not sure if I’d brought my own preconceptions to the exhibition, or if the curators actively encouraged this interpretation, but it seemed like the only really interesting painting Munch had made after the eight months in 1908–1909 he spent at a psychiatric institute had been the triumphant “Sun.” Everything else was happy — and empty.
“Towards the Forest” — this year’s exhibition — radically corrected my misconceptions. It begins with a lopsided version of The Sun — a wonderfully imperfect exuberance. Then paintings from different eras in the painter’s life — pre- and post-sun — are indiscriminately juxtaposed. What emerged was a striking unity, and a vital force that transcends any simple dark-light divide.
I returned to my failure to assess the emotional valence of some of the paintings. Could it have been based on a false assumption? Are all emotions really either positive or negative? Try introspecting at a random moment during your day: does what you find in your head necessarily feel either good or bad? If not — must it be unemotional?
Last summer, I tried carrying out this somewhat mad experiment on myself: every 15 minutes for 12 hours, I stopped what I was doing to introspect and take my “emotional temperature” — i.e. pay attention to what my mood felt like. The results? Emotional — yes. Clearly positive or negative — almost never.
Perhaps Munch’s forestscapes are just this: glimpses of a fully particularized internal space, richly emotional without a “plus” or “minus” sign.
By reshuffling Munch’s pictures, and bringing new ones out of storage, Knausgård changed the story I tell myself about Munch’s life and work. Now I know, as Knausgård tells us, that Munch “never became stale.” But Knausgård also claims that Munch “never found inner calm” — and this I’m less sure about.
Inner calm doesn’t mean boredom — that’s precisely what Towards the Forest demonstrates. It doesn’t mean lack of emotion either — it doesn’t even mean lack of twisted, writhing trees. It may mean fewer twisted trees — along with a certain power to transform them.
“Towards the Forest” is named after two series of woodcuts Munch painted in 1897 and 1915 (I think). They show two figures huddled together in the dark, walking towards an empty field to a forest looming on the horizon. It’s a startling image — what are these people doing, heading towards the darkest depths — in rather than out — in the dead of night?
The two wooduts are strikingly similar. The fact that Munch returned to the same motif 18 years later lends credence to Knausgård’s contention that he never found inner calm. Still, there are important differences. The two figures — Munch and his femme fatale — have been transformed into abstract forms of light and darkness. It’s as if the forest needed light as well as darkness, and as if Munch had managed to transform his troubled romantic history into something more universal — without ever letting go of it.
Like the forests in Munch’s paintings, the ones in the woodcuts are inner realms. What both woodcuts agree on is that sometimes the way out of your head is through your head, out of darkness — through darkness.
Munch’s forest is also — art. Quite literally — the horizontal marks on the woodcuts are marks left by the natural grains in the woodblocks Munch was using. He’s making a representation of wood out of wood — and a dark, transformative realm out of the stuff of life. He fed his life into his art — and in turn, his art sustained him.
Munch may never have broken through the forest to find a permanent triumphant light. Instead, he travelled from forest into forest, into forest again— each overgrown with bafflingly perfect trees.