‘The Scream’ master Munch fails to win favor in his native Norway

by Pierre-henry Deshayes

AFP-JIJI

He may be acclaimed in the art world and coveted by thieves but Edvard Munch is starved of recognition in his native Norway, where squabbles have delayed a new museum worthy of his oeuvre.

The coming year will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the expressionist master, who painted the now iconic “The Scream.” But the anniversary is clouded by the city of Oslo’s inability to provide a proper setting for the art gems the painter left in his will.

Munch, who died in 1944, bequeathed an enormous collection to the Norwegian capital, including 1,100 paintings, 3,000 drawings and 18,000 etchings.

But the current Munch Museum, constructed cheaply after World War II in a rather rundown Oslo neighborhood, does not do justice to the priceless trove.

“It’s time to have something more modern that would enable us to better welcome the public and exhibit Munch’s work from other perspectives, in broader contexts, both his and ours,” museum director Stein Olav Henrichsen said.

While everyone agrees on the need for a better museum, there are divisions over where to place it.

Oslo’s city council agreed in 2008 to erect a building near the new, futuristic opera house on the shores of the Oslo Fjord, but those plans were scrapped three years later when the populist right suddenly withdrew its support without a concrete explanation.

The move was a shock and an embarrassment. A Spanish architecture firm had already been hired and had drawn up plans for Lambda, a supermodern leaning glass building, at great expense.

The issue has been at a standstill ever since, and Oslo has been unable to come to an agreement on any of the current options.

Those include a return to the Spanish concept; or a move to the aging main building of the National Gallery downtown; or perhaps a total renovation of the museum’s current location just outside the city center. All are estimated to cost around $285 million.

Failure to reach agreement could be interpreted as a Norwegian cold shoulder to the country’s most famous artist, in sharp contrast to his huge international appeal.

A million people recently visited a Munch exhibit that toured Paris, Frankfurt and London. And one of four versions of “The Scream” Munch painted — the only one in private hands — was sold in the past year at a New York auction for the record sum of $119.9 million.

By comparison, the Munch Museum in Oslo attracts around 126,000 visitors per year, even though it owns two versions of “The Scream,” perhaps the most famous expression of existential angst.

And it is not certain the visitor numbers will soar even if Oslo gets a brand new Munch museum.

“I don’t think Norwegians really understand the power of Edvard Munch’s work,” Henrichsen said. “His cultural and economic importance is underestimated here.”

The artist’s descendants are eager to see the issue resolved.

His great-great-niece, Elisabeth Munch Ellingsen, called the impasse “shameful and scandalous.”

“Considering the treasure they’re sitting on, it’s shameful the local politicians can’t find a solution. When they decided to apply to host the Olympic Winter Games, it took them five minutes,” she said.

Ellingsen has sent a letter to the government asking it to intervene, but to no avail. Culture Minister Hadia Tajik responded that Munch’s bequest was to the city of Oslo and not the state.

While Munch features on Norway’s highest-value bank note of 1,000 kroner, this is not the first time the artist’s legacy has been mistreated.

Oslo demolished the home he left to the city in his will and turned part of the land into a parking lot in 1960.

In Norway, it sometimes seems the only ones who really covet Munch are thieves. Two versions of “The Scream” were stolen in 1994 and 2004. Both of the paintings were later recovered.