To walk in Edvard Munch’s shoes

An artist’s life journey

Edvard Munch

This photo of Edvard Munch at his home at Ekely were taken toward the end of his life in 1941. Munch stayed there until he died in 1944.

CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

If you like the work of Edvard Munch, and if you want to learn more about what influenced him, trace his life, and reflect on how his legacy continues to evolve, then a walking tour in Oslo is for you.

Munch was born in a farmhouse in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten in 1863 to Laura Catherine Bjølstad and Christian Munch, son of a priest. Christian was a doctor and medical officer when he married Laura in 1861. Munch would have an older sister, Johanne Sophie and three younger siblings, Peter Andreas, Laura Catherine, and Inger Marie. Laura was artistically inclined and certainly encouraged Edvard and Sophie.

The family moved to Christiania (renamed Kristiania in 1877 and now Oslo), in 1864 when Christian was appointed medical officer at Akershus Fortress. Munch lived for some time in Christiania, and you can walk and see many of the addresses where he lived. Pilestredet 30 is first on the list. He moved here as a toddler, and this is where his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 5 years old.

After his mother’s death, his father and Aunt Karen raised the Munch children. Munch, often ill during the winters and kept out of school, drew to keep himself occupied. His aunt and school friends would tutor him while his father taught him history and literature and entertained the children with ghost stories and tales of American writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Edvard Munch

Photo: Nasjonalmuseet
“The Sick Child” (1885–86) by Edvard Munch.

His religious father spooked Munch with his ghost stories. Munch later explained that he was convinced that his father helped inspire his macabre visions and nightmares. Laura Catherine was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age, another factor that influenced Munch. 

Christian’s military pay was low, and his attempts to develop a private practice failed, thus keeping his family in poverty. They moved often from one inexpensive apartment to another. Munch’s early drawing and watercolors depicted these interiors as well as objects, such as medicine bottles and drawing implements. By his teens, art was Munch’s primary interest.

In an area called Grünerløkka, Løkka for short, Munch moved to Fossveien 9 with his family when he was 12 years old. His father developed a private practice in the apartment. It was here that Munch saw many sick people and lost sister Sophie to tuberculosis. But he also practiced art here. He drew scenery from the window and fairy tales that his father read to him.

The family then moved to a larger apartment in Schous Plass 1. This is where he painted The Sick Child in 1886, a memory of sister Sophie. Munch called it his first “soul painting,” his break from impressionism. 

In 1879, Munch enrolled in a technical college to study engineering. He learned perspective drawing there, but illness was never far behind. Munch left the college to become a painter even though his father was against it. 

Edvard Munch bequeathed his entire collection of art to the City of Oslo, now on display at the MUNCH at Bjørvika.

Munch then enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania in 1881.That year, he finished his first portraits. In 1883, he took part in his first public exhibition and shared a studio with other students on the main street of Kristiania. That studio and loft was called “Pultosten,” meaning cream cheese. In the studio, Edvard and other artists would learn from each other. Visitors included artist and journalist Christian Krohg and Hans Jaeger, a naturalist author who valued truth above all. “Write your life,” was his main theme. Munch listened to that advice and painted subjective experiences.

Munch visited Paris during the Exposition Universelle in 1889, where his painting “Morning” (1884) was displayed at the Norwegian pavilion. It was an exciting time for him—all the modern European art, including works of Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, used color to express emotion. Munch was particularly impressed with Gauguin’s reaction against realism and his motto that “art was human work and not an imitation of Nature,” a belief stated earlier by James Whistler, an artist from my hometown of Lowell, Mass. 

After Munch’s father died in 1889, leaving the family destitute, Munch returned home and arranged a loan from a wealthy Norwegian collector. From that time, he assumed financial responsibility for the family.

By 1892, Munch was using color as the symbol-laden element of his art. Considered by Christian Krohg to be the first Symbolist painting by a Norwegian artist, “Melancholy” was exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition in Oslo. Soon, Munch was invited to Berlin where he became involved in an international circle of writers and artists, including the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg. Munch would remain in Berlin for four years.

Edvard Munch

The view westward from Grünerløkka is a recurring motif in Edvard Munch’s art.

“The Scream,” his iconic work, was first painted in 1893. In all, there would be four versions. “The Scream,” Munch’s most famous work, is one of the most recognizable paintings in the entire world of art, alerting us all to the universal anxiety of modern people.

Then in 1896, Munch moved to Paris. His financial situation had improved, and he bought a summer house facing the fjords of Kristiania, a small cabin built in the late 18th century in the small town of Åsgårdstrand. He called this home the “Happy House” and returned there almost every summer for the next 20 years.

But he soon returned to Kristiania where he would stay until his death in 1944.

The last stop on our walk is Our Savior’s Cemetery. Past the tombstone of Christian Krohg is Munch’s tombstone. Because Munch understood that there was no one to take care of his art, in 1940 he wrote a will that gave everything to the municipality of Oslo, so that his art would be saved and protected. The city of Oslo built the Munch Museum, which opened in 1963. And now with the splendid new Munch Museum, a new chapter begins in one of the largest single-artist museums in the world.

All photos courtesy of the Munch Museum, unless otherwise noted.

This article was in part based on an educational video produced by the Munch Museum. Search YouTube for “Edvard Munch’s Oslo: Map of an artist.”

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 5, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD, travel editor, is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

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