Book review: Seeing Munch anew

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

As a genre, graphic novels are coming into their own. No longer just the province of tights-wearing mutants, serious works like Maus and Persepolis have shown the range of the illustrated format, so it’s only natural that biographies would get in on the action.

No group of people fits this format better than artists. UK publisher Self Made Hero’s series, Art Masters, aims to document the world’s great artists in a visual medium by seeking out books to add to the collection. Thus far, the series comprises Pablo (Picasso), Vincent (van Gogh), Rembrandt (van Rijn), and (Edvard) Munch. Each is done in its own style and according to its own rules. They were all also originally written and published in languages other than English. A book on Salvador Dalí will join the series in autumn.

Munch, brainchild of Steffen Kverneland, takes a page out of Munch’s own madness. We see repetition of image themes and stylization that at times borders on Cubist. Faces become masks, and not usually flattering ones (the author’s own image is drawn in an especially pejorative way, when it’s included). A muted color scheme dominates, aside from when Munch’s works are reproduced onto the page. Only those details that matter are included, leaving some pages with an unfinished look. But this only makes Munch’s art stand out all the more when it appears: with his world so drab and melancholy, the colors that he saw truly amaze.
In terms of the text itself, Kverneland set himself a demanding rule, as explained in the book’s intro:

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016 Kverneland describes his rule.

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016
Kverneland describes his rule.

Munch kept copious diaries and correspondences, and it is from these that the text is taken as we go through the artist’s early life in Berlin and other formative experiences. Even though they are primary texts, Kverneland cautions that “they should be taken with a grain of salt.” Munch, after all, was devoted to rendering his subjective truth in his art. He referred to some of his diaries as “literary journals.”

If I were to criticize any aspect of this phenomenal work, I’d say that the integration of these sources is sometimes clunky and even confusing. I’ll admit to trouble following the cast of characters through some of the time jumps and POV switches as various of Munch’s compatriots were used to tell the story. This vanished on a second read.

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016 Scenes from the book: Kverneland illustrates Munch’s turmoil.

Image: Steffen Kverneland © SelfMadeHero, 2016
Scenes from the book: Kverneland illustrates Munch’s turmoil.

Steffen Kverneland’s specialty is adapting classic literature to a visual format. He’s won Norsk Tegneserieforum’s Sproing award twice for other of his graphic series, and in 2013 Munch took home the prestigious Brage Prize in non-fiction. It’s easy to see why when you hold this substantial book in your hands and begin to turn its painstakingly illustrated pages.

Munch is available in English from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Or if you’re feeling extra Norsk, you can purchase it in the original Norwegian from No Comprende Press: Shipping to the U.S. is $13.

This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.