Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944) radical modernism in painting challenged his time. This was especially true of the Berlin art scene at the turn of the century, on which the Norwegian symbolist had a great influence. The exhibition “Edvard Munch. Magic of the North” is a cooperation with MUNCH in Oslo and tells of the relationship between the Norwegian painter and Berlin through 90 works of painting, graphic art and photography.
Fig. above: Edvard Munch, Red and White, 1899-1900, Photo: © MUNCH, Oslo / Halvor Bjørngård
Thomas Köhler, Director Berlinische Galerie: “Edvard Munch was a central pioneer of modernism. What is far too little known: the Norwegian artist had a great influence on the Berlin art scene at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. An art scandal helped him to first fame in 1892, and finally, in 1927, the Nationalgalerie Berlin hosted the largest retrospective of his work to date. It is a unique opportunity to be able to show Munch’s high-calibre works in such abundance.”
Tone Hansen, Director MUNCH: “For Edvard Munch, Germany was the country of his artistic breakthrough and became an important place for the sale of his works. Today, Berlin, the city of culture, is an important partner for Norway. We are immensely proud of Munch’s magnificent return in the form of this first-class curated exhibition. We look forward to further collaboration between our two institutions and hope that the exhibition will generate even more interest in Norwegian art.”
The “Munch Affair”
The enthusiasm for all things Nordic had taken hold of the imperial capital Berlin at the end of the 19th century. “The best of Germany, the whole of creative literature at the turn of the century fell under the magical spell of the North at that time,” the writer Stefan Zweig recalled in 1925. The fascination also extended to the visual arts and was an occasion to invite Munch, who was largely unknown at the time, to a solo exhibition at the Verein Berliner Künstler in November 1892. He had been suggested by his compatriot Adelsteen Normann, a resident of Berlin and Norway, who himself specialised in popular fjord landscapes that sold very well – to Kaiser Wilhelm II, among others.
The Berlin art scene at the beginning of the 1890s was still not very progressive. It was dominated by an artistic taste oriented towards representation and tradition, promoted by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the influential painter Anton von Werner, who headed the Verein Berliner Künstler. The 55 works by Munch presented in the architects’ house in Wilhelmstraße were so avant-garde and alien to Berlin that they hit the art world like a meteorite and divided it. Established members of the association were outraged and applied for immediate closure. Only a few days after its opening, the show had to be dismantled again. With the “Affaire Munch”, as the contemporary press ironised the scandal, modernism began in the city. Munch, not yet thirty years old at the time, enjoyed the unexpected publicity. He wrote home, “By the way, this is the best thing that can happen, I can’t have better publicity.” He immediately moved to the Spree, where he lived and worked on and off for long periods from 1892 to 1908, before settling in Norway from 1909.
Munch’s Early Berlin Years
While Berlin looked longingly to the North at the end of the 19th century, the modern imperial capital also exerted a great attraction on Nordic countries in the opposite direction. Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg or Ola Hansson, whose works were harshly criticised or censored in their Scandinavian homelands, found niches and opportunities to publish in Berlin or to create an audience for their plays, especially through the Freie Bühne association. Berlin offered numerous exhibition opportunities for visual artists. The glittering bohemian scene met in the wine tavern “Zum schwarzen Ferkel”.
Adolf Paul, a German-Swedish-Finnish writer who belonged to the inner circle around Edvard Munch and August Strindberg at the turn of the century, pointed out in reference to Munch’s early years in Berlin: “The artists all swear by Paris, and they may be right. But they must have a dash of Berlin – their art must have a dash of Berlin – in order to flourish. […] Of Munch, who learned in Paris but became in Berlin!”
In fact, Munch also stayed in Paris several times from 1889 onwards, studying the works of the avant-garde there, such as those of Paul Gauguin, the Nabis group of artists and Vincent van Gogh. While Symbolism played a central role in Paris, the currents of Naturalism and Impressionism still dominated in Berlin around 1900, and there was initially a lack of understanding for Munch’s Symbolist “painting of the future”, as the artist himself once called it. However, over the years Munch decisively advanced his career on the Spree. Among other things, he was a member of the Berlin Secession, the Deutscher Künstlerbund and later the Prussian Academy of Arts. Although Munch’s works had by then been shown in many international exhibitions, Berlin remained one of the most important places in Europe for him, with some sixty exhibitions between 1892 and 1933, including many solo shows. Here he found progressive intellectuals who appreciated and promoted his work.
“Life – Love – Jealousy – Madness – Fear – Death”
Berlin also gave Munch the space to try out new ideas. As early as 1889, he had made the first notes in France on what would later become his main work, the “Life Frieze”, which he only called in retrospect. Under the title “Study for a Series ‘Love'”, he showed his works for the first time as a coherent sequence of pictures in an exhibition for which he had rented two rooms in a commercial building on Unter den Linden in the winter of 1893/94 – a strategy he repeated in the Berlin gallery Ugo Barroccio in 1895.
In 1902, in an exhibition at the Berlin Secession, he expanded this idea, which was essential to his work, into the most extensive “representation of a series of life pictures” to date. The themes revolved around “life – love – jealousy – madness – fear – death”, according to Munch’s friend Albert Kollmann. In this version, the frieze comprised 22 works and was presented across all four walls in the sculpture hall of the Secession. However, it was too early for the public in Berlin, who were still little familiar with Symbolism, to be able to appreciate and appreciate Munch’s position. The art critic Hans Rosenhagen regretted in the magazine “Die Kunst für alle”: “They do not realise that something quite peculiar has been created here by the union of brutal Nordic lust for colour, Manet’s suggestions and a tendency towards reverie.”
Further variants and frieze concepts were to follow. For his patron, the Lübeck art collector Max Linde, Munch painted the so-called Linde Frieze as a coherent decoration in Berlin in 1904. In 1906 he developed stage designs for Ibsen’s drama “Ghosts” for the Berlin theatre man Max Reinhardt. He was also commissioned by him to decorate a ballroom on the first floor of the Kammerspiele, which is known today as the Reinhardt Frieze. In 1913, the painter celebrated a great success at the Berlin Secession with studies for his monumental frieze to decorate the auditorium of the university in Kristiania (now Oslo). The works were almost universally well reviewed by the Berlin press. Munch’s presence in Berlin’s art scene changed the idea of the North. Instead of romantic or naturalistic fjord landscapes, people now associated it with his emotionally condensed, colourful imagery.
Munch in National Socialism
Munch’s influence on the following generation of Expressionists was widely discussed in Berlin from 1910. Against this backdrop, he became a classic. This was accompanied by increasing appropriation as a “Germanic” artist. In 1927, Ludwig Justi, director of the National Gallery in Berlin, organised the most extensive solo museum exhibition of Munch’s work to date at the Kronprinzenpalais. With this exhibition, his name represented in Berlin and Germany “the specifically Nordic world feeling”, as was read in the press.
After the National Socialists came to power, Munch’s art was instrumentalised as “Nordic-Germanic”, but also defamed early on as “degenerate”. Ten years after his triumph in the National Gallery, 83 of his works were confiscated from public collections as part of the “Degenerate Art” campaign. After the occupation of Norway on 9 April 1940 by German troops, the 76-year-old wrote his will and bequeathed all his works, including his written estate, to the city of Oslo. He hoped that this would give his “frieze of life” a place and make the works accessible to a large public.
Today, Munch is considered one of the most important representatives of European modernism. His art points beyond his own time and continues to influence the international art scene due to the unbroken topicality of his themes and his painting. At the same time, Munch’s works have provided a new view of the North, which we associate with its light, its colours and the melancholy characteristic of his works. The exhibition includes around 80 works by Edvard Munch, complemented by works by other artists* who shaped the idea of the North as well as the modern art scene on the Spree in Berlin at the end of the 19th century, including Walter Leistikow or Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
The exhibition is under the joint patronage of Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and His Majesty King Harald V of Norway. It is being produced in close cooperation with MUNCH, Oslo and with significant support from the Kupferstichkabinett and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
“What makes art?”, live recording of the WELTKUNST podcast Talk: Dr. Thomas Köhler (Director Berlinische Galerie) with Dr. Ortrud Westheider (Director Museum Barberini) Moderation: Lisa Zeitz (Editor-in-Chief WELTKUNST), Thu 21 Sep, 7pm.
Director’s Talk, Dr. Thomas Köhler (Director Berlinische Galerie) with Tone Hansen (Director MUNCH, Oslo) in English, Wed 15 Nov, 7 pm
Detailed programme and further offers at berlinischegalerie.de/kalender
State Museum of Modern Art, Photography and Architecture
Alte Jakobstraße 124–128
Exhibition period: 15.09.2023 – 21.01.2024
Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun 10 am – 6 pm, Thu 10 am – 8 pm, closed Tuesday
Exclusively for groups: Wed – Fri from 9 a.m. (online registration required in advance)
Admission 15 €, reduced 9 €, every Thu 5-8 p.m. reduced admission (from 21.9.).
Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.