NO PAINTING SUMS UP the alienation and isolation of 21st century existence as does The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. After Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, it is the second most recognised painting in the world.
The idea came to Munch while walking in the wooded hills above old Oslo more than a century ago, following a bout of heavy drinking the previous evening.
“I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a great sadness. Suddenly the sky became blood red. I stopped, leaned against the railings, dead tired. And saw the flaming clouds as blood over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there trembling with angst. And I sensed a loud, unending scream pierce nature.”
Written shortly after his walk, the words that would eventually lead to the series of paintings and lithographs entitled Skrik (The Scream), contain the sense of inner anguish conveyed by the lone figure standing beneath a turbulent sunset; his eyes and mouth wide open, hands clamped to bulging temples.
One fine morning with a clear head, and without the paranoia of a heavy hangover, I set out to retrace Munch’s footsteps. The number 19 tram trundles eastwards through Oslo city centre up into the woods that form part of Ekeberg Park, a popular spot for Sunday strollers. Munch lived nearby for a time and often walked through the park. I alighted at Sjømannsskolen (The Seaman’s School).
There were no signposts indicating the artistic importance of the site but, knowing the area, I crossed the road to enter the grounds of the business training centre now occupying the former Seaman’s School. Coincidentally, some of the oldest known examples of art in Norway lie carved into a granite rock to the left of the entrance. Even after 6,000 years of harsh northern climes it is still possible to discern the worn outlines of deer and elk picked out in red. Munch’s famous view lies to the rear of the building.
Armed with a copy of the The Scream, gazing down at the magnificent view of the city, it is possible to work out where Munch must have paused that day, more or less. A small path below the school leads down a grassy slope to a rail reminiscent of the one in the painting. But that doesn’t quite fit. There is another more likely candidate below. A little nearer to the shore of the fjord, it becomes clear the rutted track the artist portrayed over a century before has transformed into a busy highway leading to Sweden.
The several versions of The Scream Munch painted were never intended to depict reality, but to represent his tortured state of mind. Munch made a point of painting from memory. On such a fine morning it is difficult to feel the terrible angst that seized him.
From this point Oslo spreads out below as a three-dimensional map. Far on the other side of the city the scimitar shape of Holmenkollen stands near the top of surrounding hills. Built for the 1952 Winter Olympics the ski jump has become one of several iconic symbols of the city. Looking down, hugging the far side of the fjord, two steeply pitched roofs stand out. These are the museums housing the Kon Tiki and Fridtjof Nansen’s polar ship Fram – each a reminder of Norway’s strong maritime history. The magnificent Viking ships Gokstad and Oseberg are housed there too, all near Bygdøy outdoor Folk Museum.
To the right, nearer the fjord’s apex, stands an impressive red-brick structure. Bauhaus in feeling, two towering cubist towers mark it out as Rådhus, the City Hall. The impressive building was completed just before World War II. Munch harboured an unfulfilled ambition to decorate the interior walls with a frieze.
On the peninsula jutting out in the foreground of Rådhus stands Akerhus fortress, built to defend the city against attack. Munch’s father, Dr Christian Munch, took up the post of army corps physician there in 1864, the year following Edvard’s birth.
I walk out of the business school grounds, and across the tram lines, into Ekeberg Park. A signpost marked Jernalderstien leads me through the woods to the first path on the left, and back down into the city. Built in 1929, and well worth seeing, Ekeberg Restaurant is a fine, early example of functionalist architecture. At a fork marked by two log benches, it is time to turn left. The winding path gets steeper here, and is quite rough in places. Finally, I emerge at Oslo Gate, on the eastern edge of the old town.
There are some medieval ruins here worth seeing before Oslo Gate leads into Grønlandsleiret. Not so long ago this area was completely run down. However, an influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East in the Seventies and Eighties brought about a transformation. Their influence and industry has helped regenerate the locality. They opened new businesses and brought fresh life to the area. When the potential of its elegant and spacious 19th century flats was rediscovered in the 1990s, things change even further. Grønland has become home to a broad mix of society with ethnic shops, cafes and restaurants rubbing shoulders with fashionable bars and design studios.
Set in a leafy park is Oslo’s oldest prison. I spent the night of November 2nd 1999 in a cell there, courtesy of Oslo’s police. There had been a violent demonstration against the visit of Bill Clinton, which I had followed in my role as a freelance journalist. Taking photos of police brutality right in the thick of the crowds had obviously rubbed a few officers up the wrong way. But my spirits were lifted upon release to see a crowd of teenage girls huddled under a tree in the pouring rain. Clapping and cheering me like a hero, they’d been waiting there all night. When I told them I’d only been arrested by mistake, they said it didn’t matter, I’d been arrested, and that was good enough for them.
At the other end of Grønland lies Vaterland Bridge. It’s a long time since Lilletorvet, the market Munch drew in 1881 disappeared. Yet the empty spaces beneath the flyover cry out for it to be brought back. I make my way towards a towering glass and steel hotel where tall. stark and ugly concrete structures overwhelm the essential provinciality of the city. Beyond this alienating urban wasteland, only the old façade of Central Station remains in a pathetic attempt to conceal the grave architectural travesty committed in the name of progress. For here begins Karl Johan’s Gate, Oslo’s most famous thoroughfare. Named after an 18th century king, it was home to Norway’s thriving artistic community in Munch’s day.
As well as featuring in many of Munch’s works, the street played a central role in his life. A little way up, I turn left into Nedre Slottsgata. Opposite Steen & Strøm department store is number 9. This was Munch’s first address in Oslo. The original wooden house has long since been torn down. His family moved there from from the small parish of Løten in 1864 when Edvard was just one-year-old.
To understand how a painting as harrowing as The Scream was conceived, we need to step back in time. Looking at present day Oslo, with its clean streets and affluent citizens, it is almost impossible to imagine the omnipresent poverty of Munch’s youth. The rising prosperity of the 1870s, which attracted people from all over Norway, had given way to steep economic decline. Life was grim for all, save the very rich. Shanty towns had sprung up on the city outskirts. Without proper running water and sewers they were breeding grounds for tuberculosis, scarlet fever and whooping-cough. Munch’s father, a devout Christian, treated many victims for free. But death was commonplace. As a child, Munch suffered TB. His mother and one sister died from it. Haunted by bereavement he painted pictures related to their deaths throughout his life.
Back on Karl Johan’s Gate, I continue west. Just before the street breaks out into an elegant tree-lined boulevard is a small square, Stortings Plass, which houses an outdoor café in summer. From 1882, Munch and some friends rented a studio there. The seated statue in the square is of Christian Krogh, one of Norway’s best-known 19th-century painters. Munch was his pupil for a time. As the most powerful of the artist’s earliest champions, Krogh bought one of his paintings to demonstrate his support. Next door to the former studio is Tostrup’s, once home to one of Norway’s leading goldsmiths. In 1882 Munch held and exhibition on the premises, after his return from Paris, where he had studied the work of the Impressionists.
A little further along on the left hand side, facing the Royal Palace, stands Stortinget, the Norwegian Parliament building. Several of Munch’s most famous views of Karl Johans are seen from this spot. One of them hangs in the shopping mall on the right, further up the street.
First, take the opportunity to pop into Grand Hotel, former haunt of poets, writers and artists. The Nobel Prize-winning writer, Knut Hamsun, was a regular client, as was Munch himself. Legend has it you could set your watch by Henrik Ibsen’s arrival each day.
On one wall is a mural by Per Krogh, son of Christian Krogh. Munch is pictured sitting at a table by a window with Hans Jaeger, a notorious libertine and radical. Here they drank and debated. They had much to debate. Christiania, as Oslo was called at the time, was a small provincial city on the fringes of Scandinavia. Norwegians were thirsty for independence from their dominant neighbour, Sweden. Talk of war was in the air. There were many strikes and demonstrations for more jobs and higher wages. Up until that point, Norwegian culture had been stuck in a romantic past that had never really existed. Pandering to the demands of a wealthy clientele, most painters depicted scenes of noble peasants in rural idylls. Munch and his circle of contemporaries began painting life as it was.
In 1882 a group of artists staged a strike against the conservatism of the Art Association Annual Exhibition. Forming themselves into the Creative Artists’ Union they exhibited in the shops of Karl Johan. Munch joined them the following year. They believed upheavals taking place out on the streets should have parallels in art and literature. Not long after, Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Greig, Knut Hamsun and Munch thrust contemporary Norwegian culture on a world stage.
Number 35, Karl Johans Gate used to house one of the largest private galleries in Scandinavia, Blomqvists. From 1902 onwards, Munch exhibited there many times.
Upon reaching Universitet Gata, I turn right, bringing me to the portals of Norway’s National Gallery. As well as Christian Krogh and Edvard Munch, works by many other leading Norwegian painters hang alongside Picassos, Braques and Monets. But, as with the Mona Lisa in Paris’ Louvre most foreign visitors go to see the gallery’s version of The Scream.
The trail is not quite over yet. Once out on Universitet Gata I wander up the street to the junction with Pilestredet. When I was there in 2002 a couple of rundown houses that appeared destined for demolition stood on the left. The most dilapidated was number 30. The ground floor windows were boarded up and covered with fly posters. Where it wasn’t sprayed with graffiti the stucco façade crumbled. Much of the roof had caved in and had been replaced with plastic sheeting. On the gable wall a gigantic black and white version of The Scream stared out. It had been painted by students of Oslo’s School of Architecture. This was the most important dwelling of Munch’s childhood from the age of three. His family and he lived there for seven years . Events that were to shape his life occurred in this very house. His mother and sister, Sophie, died there. And it was there his Aunt Karen discovered him drawing on the kitchen floor with a piece of coal.
As city councillors squabbled over whether to pull the building down for redevelopment, nature had been quietly getting along with the task of demolition itself. Finally, in 2000, a resolution was passed to preserve it. Nothing had been done, as far as I could see. Yet, while the council flustered and blustered a group of anarchists showed what could be done by opening the tumbledown Blitz café next door. Murals reminiscent of 1960s rock psychedelia adorned one wall. A pioneer of expresionism, Munch and his contempories would probably have approved, although had he painted the murals they might have been slightly less psychedelic.
More on Edvard Munch’s The Scream – doesn’t it make you want to scream
And for another cultural walk through Oslo: In the steps of Knut Hamsun
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
This is an edited version of an article first published by The Independent under the title The agony and the ecstasy on Saturday, 14th September 2002