Edvard Munch (1863–1944) threw down a gauntlet to his contemporaries with the radical modernity of his art. The provocation was especially blatant in Berlin, where the Norwegian symbolist exerted a powerful influence on the art scene as the old century gave way to the new. This exhibition, designed in collaboration with Munchmuseet in Oslo, uses 90 paintings, prints and photographs to narrate the relationship between the Norwegian artist and the German capital.
The German capital was in the grip of a fervour for all things Nordic. Even the conservative Association of Berlin Artists invited the young artist, as yet unknown, to put on a solo exhibition in 1892. Viewers were shocked by the bright colours and perceived the paintings as sketchy. The show was forced to close shortly after opening. Munch’s works polarised people. The artist delighted in this public attention. He moved to the Spree, living and working in the city again and again between 1892 and 1908. The “Munch Affair”, as the press sardonically labelled the scandal, is seen as the beginning of Modernism in Berlin.
With about 60 exhibitions between 1892 and 1933, Berlin proved to be one of the most important European hotspots in Munch’s career. Here he found artists, gallery owners, intellectuals and collectors to promote his work.
On the banks of the Spree, Munch’s works were not just the parting shot for modern art. They also transformed conventional thinking about the “magic of the North” (Stefan Zweig). Romantic and naturalist notions of fjord landscapes gave way to the psychological density of Munch’s visual cosmos. During the Nazi dictatorship from 1933, the painter was at first celebrated by cultural politicians as a “great Nordic artist”, only to become an early victim of the defamatory campaign against “degenerate” art.
The exhibition embraces about 80 works by Edvard Munch. They are joined by the works of other artists, such as Walter Leistikow and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who set their stamp in the late 19th century on how Berlin imagined the North and on the Modernist art world in the city.
Themes of the exhibition
The “Munch Affair“
In the late 19th century, Berlin was gripped by a fervour for everything Nordic. “Germany’s best, all the creative literature around the turn of the century, succumbed to the magical enchantment of the North,” recalled writer Stefan Zweig in 1925. The fascination spread to the fine arts, prompting the Association of Berlin Artists to invite Munch, still largely unknown, to stage a solo exhibition in November 1892. The suggestion had come from another Norwegian artist, Adelsteen Normann, a resident of both Berlin and Norway. Normann specialised in popular fjord landscapes that sold extremely well. Indeed, the German Kaiser – Wilhelm II – was among his customers.
Berlin’s art community was not very progressive back in the early 1890s. Mainstream taste was governed by prestige and tradition, an attitude that was championed by Wilhelm II and the influential painter Anton von Werner, who presided over the above-mentioned Verein Berliner Künstler. The 55 works by Munch that went on display at the House of Architects on Wilhelmstrasse were so avant-garde and alien that they hit the art community like a meteorite and tore it in two. Established members of the association were outraged and applied to have the exhibition closed down at once. And so, only a few days after the opening, the show was dismantled again. The “Munch Affair”, as it was ironically tagged by the press, marked the advent of modern art in the city. Munch, not yet thirty, revelled in the unexpected publicity. He wrote home: “It is, by the way, the best thing that could happen, I can have no better advertisement.” He moved at once to the banks of the Spree, where he spent several long periods living and working between 1892 and 1908 before settling in Norway from 1909.
Munch’s early Berlin years
While Berlin looked to the North with wistful longing in the late 19th century, Scandinavians were just as drawn to the modern capital of the recently united German Reich. Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Ola Hansson, whose works were harshly criticised and even censored back home, found their niche in Berlin, with opportunities to publish their books or perform their plays – for example, before an audience of interested subscribers at the Freie Bühne. Visual artists had many options to exhibit, while glittering bohemia met at the wine bar Zum schwarzen Ferkel. Adolf Paul, a writer with German, Swedish and Finnish roots who belonged to the close circle around Munch and Strindberg at the turn of the century, aptly summed up Munch’s early Berlin years: “All the artists swear by Paris, and they may well be right. But they need – their art needs – a dose of Berlin to really prosper. […] Of Munch, who learnt in Paris but burst forth in Berlin!”
True enough, Munch visited Paris several times from 1889, where he studied the works of the avant-garde, including Paul Gauguin, the Nabis and Vincent van Gogh. While symbolism played a pivotal role in Paris, Berlin was still dominated around 1900 by currents of naturalism and impressionism, and so there was little sympathy initially for Munch’s symbolistic “painting of the future”, as the artist himself once called it. And yet, over the years, Munch’s career advanced decisively here by the Spree. He was, among other things, a member of the Berlin Secession, the Deutscher Künstlerbund and later the Prussian Academy of Arts. Even if Munch’s works were by this time on display at many international shows, Berlin remained one of the most important
places in Europe in terms of his career, with about sixty exhibitions between 1892 and 1933, many of them solo shows. Here he found progressive intellectuals who valued and promoted his work.
“Life – Love – Jealousy – Madness – Fear – Death“
Berlin also gave Munch space to try out new ideas. In France in 1889 he had already made some preliminary notes about his magnum opus, which later came to be known as the “Frieze of Life”. Under the title “Study for a series ‘Love’”, he first showed these pieces as a coherent sequence at an exhibition for which he hired two rooms in an office block on Unter den Linden in the winter of 1893/94 – a strategy that he was to repeat in 1895 at the Berlin gallery Ugo Barroccio.
In 1902, for an exhibition of the Berlin Secession, he built on the essential idea to produce his biggest series so far on the subject. “The themes revolved around ‘life – love – jealousy – madness– fear – death’,” observed Munch’s friend Albert Kollmann. This version of the frieze contained 22 works and was displayed around all four walls of the Secession’s
Sculpture Room. As yet, however, the Berlin public had little experience of symbolism. It was too soon for Munch’s contribution to be evaluated, let alone applauded. The art critic Hans Rosenhagen, writing in the journal “Die Kunst für alle”, lamented: “They do not recognise that combining a brutal Nordic appetite for colour, ideas from Manet and a tendency to dream has given rise to something quite distinctive.”
More variations and designs for friezes were to follow. In 1904, in Berlin, Munch painted a decorative sequence for a patron, the Lübeck art collector Max Linde. This later became known as the Linde Frieze. In 1906 he created stage sets for Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” on behalf of Max Reinhardt, the Berlinbased theatre director, who also commissioned him to adorn an upstairs hall at the Kammerspiele, resulting in what we now call the Reinhardt Frieze. In 1913 the artist scored a huge success at the Berlin Secession when he showed his studies for a monumental frieze at the university lecture hall in Kristiania (now Oslo). Almost every organ of the Berlin press carried a favourable review. Munch’s presence on Berlin’s art scene changed the way people imagined the North. Now, instead of romantic or naturalistic fjord landscapes, they associated the Nordic world with highly charged emotions and strong colours.
Munch under the Nazis
By 1910 Munch’s influence on the next generation of expressionists was a common topic in Berlin. This perception elevated his status to canonical. At the same time, his art was increasingly claimed as “Germanic”. In 1927, the biggest exhibition to date devoted by a museum to Edvard Munch was organised by Ludwig Justi, the director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, at the Kronprinzenpalais. According to the press, this show established his name in Berlin and Germany as a byword for a “specifically Nordic experience of the world”.
After the National Socialists took power, Munch’s art was exploited as “Nordic-Germanic”, only to be discredited early on as “degenerate”. Ten years after his triumph at the Nationalgalerie, 83 of his works were removed from public collections as part of the “Degenerate Art” campaign. After German troops occupied Norway on 9 April 1940, the 76-year-old drew up a will bequeathing all his works and papers to the City of Oslo. He cherished the hope that in so doing he could provide a home for his “Life Frieze” and make his work accessible to a wide audience.
Today we value Munch as a major protagonist of European modernism. His art transcends its time and still exerts an influence on the international art world, for his themes and his painting are as relevant as ever. And at the same time, Munch’s work opened up a new perspective on the North. We see it through his eyes, associate it with his light, his colours and the melancholy spirit that was so characteristic of his art.
Trailer: Edvard Munch
Photos of the opening
This exhibition enjoys the joint patronage of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, and His Majesty King Harald V of Norway.
With decisive support from
Opening during Berlin Art Week.
From 18 November 2023 until 1 April 2024, the Museum Barberini in Potsdam will be showing “Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth”