The collection of a lifetime
An exclusive interview with Mrs. Sarah G. Epstein, owner of the largest private collection of Munch’s graphic art
By Kelsey Larson
I first heard of Mrs. Epstein and the incredible Epstein Family Collection when a friend, on a trip to Washington, D.C., was invited into her home.
“I knew that I was so lucky to be there,” she told me, describing the house with its walls completely covered in the artwork of Edvard Munch. We agreed: this hidden treasure absolutely had to be shared.
“I cannot imagine living with anything but Munch on my walls,” wrote Mrs. Epstein in her 1990 essay, “Living with Edvard Munch Images: A Collector in Three Stages” which appears in the catalogue, “Edvard Much: Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection.”
Mrs. Epstein and her former husband began their collection of prints in December 1962, and it grew quickly, numbering well into the hundreds just ten years later. Since then, the collection has grown to over 300 prints and several paintings, and has received attention from all around the world. Mrs. Epstein has formed warm friendships with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. – to which several prints are donated each year – among many others. The Epstein Family Collection generously lends prints to exhibits to New York, London, Italy, Germany and Mexico, to name a few, and Mrs. Epstein was in Oslo in the spring of 2013 to celebrate Munch 150 and the opening of the largest presentation of Munch’s work in modern times.
Mrs. Epstein has strong ties to Norway, and knows HM Queen Sonja, the Minister of Culture, and many others. She even visited one of Munch’s closest living descendants, his great-nephew, Peter Andreas Munch-Ellingsen, in northern Norway in 1984.
“For me, the friends I have made through Munch, the doors in new cities and distant countries that open as a direct consequence of my involvement with this artist…collecting those feelings and memories is as significant for me as collecting the works themselves,” wrote Mrs. Epstein in her essay.
Her collection truly is the collection of a lifetime, not only for the significant cultural value it holds for Norway and the rest of the world, but for the joy and meaning it has brought her, as illustrated in the following interview.
Kelsey Larson: When did you first become interested in Munch, and what struck you about his work?
Sarah G. Epstein: I was going to Simmons School of Social Work (Boston, Mass.) and my boyfriend took me to see an exhibition of the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch (Museum of Contemporary Art, Boston). It was an exhibition of both paintings and prints. I was overwhelmed seeing in the art everything I was studying in my course work such as Separation, By the Deathbed, Jealousy and so on. As a result, Munch became my artist for life.
KL: In your first years of collecting, you managed to amass many works of art. What factors enabled you to grow the collection relatively quickly?
SE: In the 1960s when my former husband, Lionel Epstein, and I started collecting, we had a friend, Alan Fern, at the Library of Congress. Alan would get the European auction catalogues at work and let us know when Munch prints were available. He also could advise on the probable price. We often got several prints in a single lot for one bid and not just individual prints. This enabled us to grow our collection rapidly. Lionel and I also decided to focus only on Munch and not be distracted by other art, so we could make sure we had funds available when we needed to bid at auction.
KL: What is your favorite Munch print in your collection, and why is it your favorite?
SE: It is hard to choose a favorite, but certainly a hand colored Madonna is one I consider a favorite. My work is in family planning around the world, so the sperms and foetus in the border remind me that they could signify conception and does the woman in the picture want or not want a child? So many women in the world do not have access to contraception, even today.
KL: The top result when one searches your name on the Internet is from a site called Veteran Feminists of America! You’ve been recognized for your work in family planning around the world. Are there any ways in which the works of Munch inspire you from a feminist perspective?
SE: Yes, for example “Inheritance,” which is an image of a mother with syphilis taking her baby born with the disease to a clinic. I know Munch’s father was a doctor, as was mine, and doctors want healthy babies born. With contraceptives and spaced childbirths, babies have a better chance of being healthy. I am inspired to continue spreading the knowledge of family planning and its availability, plus new forms of contraception around the world. Also, Munch’s mother was one of 20 children because her father had seven children with his first wife and 13 with his second. I can’t help but wonder what impact family planning would have had on her family.
KL: You’ve written before that people have asked you how you can live in a house filled with Munch artwork, which often contains sad or disturbing themes. What is your response to this question?
SE: Yes, many of Munch’s works are of disturbing themes such as death, illness, lost love, murder, anxiety and such, but life is full of these situations. Munch also portrays love, boys swimming, mothers nursing babies, children, intimate portraits, etc. His work is balanced, representing life at all stages with all its emotions.
KL: I read that your children are also involved in art collecting. How were they inspired by your own collection?
Yes, my children are inspired by our Munch collection and each one has bought art for their homes, but without the concentration on a single artist.
KL: You were in Norway this summer for the Munch 150 celebration. Was there anything particularly special that stood out to you about that event?
Yes, we spent a little more than a week in Norway. With Oslo as our base, we visited small towns like Modum, Hvitsen, Åsgårdstrand and Moss where Munch had lived or worked, and Fredrikstad where his maternal grandfather lived. Each location had special Munch exhibitions. I was aware that not just Oslo, with extensive exhibitions at the National Gallery and Munch Museum, but so many other locations featured special Munch shows. It was wonderful for me to trace Munch’s life through towns and villages. I learned a lot about his life from these visits.
KL: You were featured in an article in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, which mentioned that you were concerned for the future of Munch’s works in Norway. What are your concerns, and are there any solutions?
I had hoped that if a new museum was to be built for the Munch Museum collection, it would be in the area where the present museum is located because that was the area where Munch grew up. I felt that the 13 story glass museum planned to be built in a very crowded area of the city was not the best location or the best design. I hope the National Gallery with its wonderful Munch room, with many of the Frieze of Life paintings, will remain where it is. This is the section of Oslo near the Royal Palace, the Aula and Karl Johan Gate that Munch knew.
KL: What lies ahead for the future of your collection?
We formed a Foundation for the Epstein Family Collection of Edvard Munch. All our prints are promised to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, along with books, catalogues, posters, etc. Every year, I choose a few prints from my home that are now owned by the Foundation to go to the National Gallery. It is a hard choice to make, like sending children away to boarding school. Unlike boarding school, though, the prints do not return to me at the end of the year. We decided our prints and other material about Munch should be kept together as a study collection and decided the National Gallery would be the best caretaker of that responsibility.
At present, the National Gallery is showing a room of their Munch prints and some are gifts from our collection. They will be on exhibit until July 28th.
This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.