Karl Ove Knausgaard as art historian

Book review: So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Photos: (left) book cover; (right) Berit Roald / NTB scanpix
Karl Ove Knausgaard doesn’t disappoint with his later book about artist Edvard Munch, So Much Longing in So Little Space.

Washington, D.C.

Do we need another book about Edvard Munch? What more is there to learn about him? If the writer is Karl Ove Knausgaard, the hesitant reader might opt to take a look at this book with the expectation that the author will offer an original perspective on this celebrated Norwegian artist. 

Knausgaard doesn’t disappoint. He wrote this small volume after having spent an intense period studying Munch, as he and art historian Kari Brandtzæg prepared an exhibit for the Munch Museum in 2017, “Towards the Forest – Knausgaard on Munch” (see note below).

The Norwegian author offers a clear description of Munch as a person but writes “the reason we still concern ourselves with this wildly solitary man are his paintings, they were his way of expressing himself, that is what he was doing both at 19 and at 72 and it is this biography, the one that is visible in his paintings which is relevant and interesting, not because of their connection to his life, but as something in themselves: life as painted reality.”

Munch suffered traumatic losses of close family members early in his life. He lost his mother when he was only 5 and then his sister, father, and younger brother by the age of only 32. Many of his paintings reflect his pain and, as Knausgaard writes, “He painted his memories and sought to recapture the emotions they had awakened in him at the time.”

Knausgaard presents his impressions of many of Munch’s paintings, most of which belong to the Munch Museum collection including “Cabbage Field,” “Garden with Red House,” “The Infirmary at Helgelandsmoen,” “Inger Munch in Black,” “Under the Stars,” and “Painter by the Wall.” Reproductions of 14 of the paintings he discusses are found in the book. One wishes that all of those mentioned were so close at hand as one reads about them.

What is particularly interesting about this book is that Knausgaard goes beyond his own thought-provoking study of numerous paintings by Munch. He draws parallels, sometimes quite surprising ones, between Munch and several painters and creators in the other arts. He also recounts conversations that he has had with other artists who claim to have been influenced by Munch.

He, of course, compares Munch to other painters. Perhaps a rather obvious comparison is Munch and Van Gogh because of their similar use of “wild color.” Andy Warhol, however, might not come to mind, but the author states that they are alike in that each painted an emotional reality rather than a visual one. To see a similarity between Munch and the Scottish painter Peter Doig, he suggests comparing “Ashes” and “Echo Lake.” And he suggests comparing Norwegian Vanessa Baird’s “radically-simplified landscapes” to those of Munch.

Knausgaard finds similarities between Munch and two Norwegian writers, Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger (winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature) and Tor Ulven, author of Replacement, due to their literary realism. 

In the final part of the book, Knausgaard writes at length about his conversations with Joachim Trier, the director of the film Oslo, August 31st. Trier recognizes Munch’s influence. When he makes a film, he explains, he creates “inner images, an inner stream of memories and thoughts,” as Munch does in his art. He says that he has been criticized by some for this technique because it is considered “unfilmic,” not appropriate for the cinema. 

This is not an easy book. It has both breadth and depth and demands the reader’s attention. But Knausgaard provides a fascinating look into the mind and art of Edvard Munch and indicates others who have something in common with him and/or who have been knowingly influenced by him. We also learn a lot about Knausgaard himself.

Knausgaard, Karl Ove, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (2019). Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey. London: Penguin Books.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.