Munch at the Musée d’Orsay: “We are born, we love, we die, this is the heart of the exhibition”. Interview with the curator | Knowledge of the Arts

The figure of Munch (1863 – 1944) remains little known in France. This is why the Orsay Museum has chosen to dedicate an exhibition to the work “fintoxicating, powerful, of great coherence of this expressionist artist, founder of a certain modernity. This is a retrospective whose chronology structures the exhibition that guides us from birth to death, up to rebirth. Because everything is a question of cycle in Munch’s work, and in his conception of nature. Whatever medium he uses, he thinks of his work as a whole, and constantly repeats the same motifs. Journalist Jérome Coignard interviews Claire Bernardi, the curator of the exhibition.


How are you approaching Munch in Paris in 2022?

We wanted to dedicate a large monographic exhibition to Munch, which had never before been done at the Musée d’Orsay. There had been ” Munch and France (Orsay, 1991), which had made history, as well as Edvard Munch, the modern eye (Centre Pompidou, 2011), oriented towards the work of the 20th century – this expressionist artist knew how to renew his art, taking an interest in photography and cinema. However, the figure of Munch remains little known in France. Of him, we often only know The Scream. The artist has disappeared behind a work. His name is familiar without being so, often we don’t know how to pronounce it… Where does he come from? What century does it belong to? His work is abundant, powerful, of great coherence. Seduced or not, we are carried away by his universe.

Edward Munch, The Sun, 1910–1913, Oil on canvas, 162 x 205 cm, Oslo, Munchmuseet © Oslo, Munchmuseet

How did you design this exhibition?

We have opted for a retrospective showing his work from the beginning of his career to his last years, following a non-chronological thread. A succession of strong works conceived as such by Munch, the Frieze of Life forms the backbone of the exhibition, from birth to death and up to rebirth. We designed the exhibition on the notion of cycle, in cohesion with the nature that it has before it. This cyclical idea characterizes his way of working. Like Gauguin and the great artists of the late 19th century, founders of a certain modernity, Munch thinks of his work as a whole. He constantly reworks the same motif without ever repeating himself, transposes it into another universe, and this until the 1940s. He digs, explores different mediums, his pictorial technique itself evolves a lot.

How did his artistic personality assert itself?

Munch wanted to make art that ” from the heart ” and that ” talk to people “. When he started, he noticed that the previous generation had shown how to paint with ” women who knit “, developing an art of everyday life that speaks to everyone. He too will speak to everyone, but with the force of expression and feeling. After his first stays in France, in 1885 then 1889, he adopted a lighter palette, an impressionist touch (for example in Heure du soir, from the Thyssen collection, or Nuit d’été (1889), which shows his sister Inger in a pose inspired by Whistler). But he quickly detaches himself from these influences.

Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1895, oil on canvas, 91 × 109 cm, Oslo, Norway, Munchmuseet Photo: © CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Munchmuseet

Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1895, oil on canvas, 91 × 109 cm, Oslo, Norway, Munchmuseet Photo: © CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Munchmuseet

First centered on his relatives, his family, his intimate universe, his work then takes root in European symbolism. Character of the bohemian Christiania (now Oslo), the poet and theoretician Hans Jæger, whom he painted in 1889, evokes this irruption of the intimate in art, the importance of the feeling of self in the artistic expression or literary. Three masterpieces from the 1890s are brought together in the exhibition: Despair, a pre-Scream with a red sky, with a character from the back that puts the viewer at a distance; Puberty, evoking the difficult passage of the young girl to adulthood, fragility, anguish; The Sick Child, Munch’s first scandal success. These three works form the beginning of a story, they mark the beginnings of a new deeply symbolist painting.

Is he a “difficult” artist? Far from the hedonism of the Impressionists, his painting has funereal overtones.

Munch does not avoid big topics, it’s true! It’s one of his strengths, it’s also an aspect that can seem disturbing. His work speaks a lot about death but also about life. He says it himself: she is a poem of life, love and death “. We are born, we love, we die, this is the heart of the exhibition. In Metabolism, a painting of incredible symbolic force updating the theme of Adam and Eve, the roots of the Tree of Evil spill over the frame sculpted by the artist. Through these roots, the rotting of the bodies whose bones we see brings life back to life. Death lurks in the least of his works, which are also an ode to life. In Madonna, a major painting reproduced in numerous prints, it alludes to birth by a fetus represented in the decoration bordering the central motif. But this fetus looks like a skeleton. Characteristic of the 1890s, the drawn decoration of the frame also evokes small sperm running around the image.

Edvard Munch, Red and White, 1899-1900, Oil on canvas, 93.5 × 129.5 cm, Oslo, Norway, Munchmuseet ©Munch Museet

Edvard Munch, Red and White, 1899-1900, Oil on canvas, 93.5 × 129.5 cm, Oslo, Norway, Munchmuseet ©Munch Museet

Munch fascinates with his obsessive attitude…

He takes up the same themes, updates them, moves them into another universe, right up to the 1940s. The subjects remain the same, but we are never faced with the same work. We show for example the whole of the work engraved on the theme of the kiss, drypoints, lithographs, fantastic woodcuts. He experiments and mixes different techniques. With Young Girls on the Bridge, the resumption and evolution of the same motif take place both in the composition and in the pictorial style. Thirty years later, the colors are much brighter. I wanted to reintegrate the very strong works of the years 1910 to 1940 into the flow of creation. They have too often been overlooked.

Did Munch move away from the avant-gardes during his long career?

His work is not impervious to the avant-gardes, if we consider for example the very strong contribution of color in the years 1908-1910. His way of painting is also liberated. Munch has too often been seen as a 19th century artist. Yet he is a contemporary of Matisse, Vlaminck, Picasso! But he doesn’t want to confront other artists. He travels through the first half of the 20th century within the framework he has created, working from within on his own anxieties. Like all the great artists of this pivotal period, he built his own universe.

Edvard Munch, Evening Hour, 1888, Oil on canvas, 75x100.5 cm.  ©Munch Museum / Munch-Ellingsen Group / VEGAP Provenance: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Edvard Munch, Evening Hour, 1888, Oil on canvas, 75×100.5 cm. ©Munch Museum / Munch-Ellingsen Group / VEGAP Provenance: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

When does its full recognition date?

In the years 1890-1900, Munch makes his way with difficulty, he is criticized, some of his exhibitions are closed. Then he exhibited a lot in Germany, supported by patrons; a bit in Paris, too. This strategy made him, on his return to Norway, a respected master, a celebrity.

What are his relations with the writers, the great thinkers of the time?

Munch knew the work of the great playwrights of his time such as Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg, inspiring figures in his painting. He created the sets for several plays by Ibsen for the Théâtre de l’Œuvre directed by Lugné-Poe. In Berlin, he created a set of sets for Max Reinhardt’s Kammerspiele. They influenced each other. In his self-portraits, Munch identifies with theater characters. His behind closed doors, his scenes of jealousy are inspired by his personal life as well as contemporary theatre.

© Göteborgs konstmuseum (Gothenburg Museum of Art).  © Hossein Sehatlou

Munch, The Sick Child (Det syke barn), 1896, Oil on canvas, 121.5 x 118.5 cm, Gothenburg Museum of Art, Sweden © Göteborgs konstmuseum (Gothenburg Museum of Art). © Hossein Sehatlou

It also borrows from history, reenacting the death of Marat by representing himself lying on a bed, next to a Charlotte Corday who resembles Tulla, his companion at the time with whom he had had a violent conflict. This room with its bare decor, always the same, is that of his decor for Hedda Gabler, by Ibsen, in a mise en abyme. He also maintained strong ties with the great philosophers of his time. He knows the work of Nietzsche, he saw his archives in Weimar and painted his posthumous portrait at the request of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. He is inspired by his universe, opposing the Dionysian and Apollonian poles, hell and the sun. He is also close to the world of Kierkegaard and German and Nordic philosophers.

And finally, the sun rises!

After the serious nervous crisis which led him to be interned in 1907-1908, his work in the 1910s was marked by the vitalist current and the thought of Bergson. From his convalescence in Warnemünde, Germany, he painted naked men and women under the sun, in the natural space. His large format works are an ode to nature and the sun. At the center of the large decor he designed for the aula of the University of Oslo, the blazing sun is also the sun of knowledge, which shines on humanity.

Exhibition “Edvard Munch. A poem of life, love and death »
Orsay Museum
1 Rue de la Legion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris
www.musee-orsay.fr
From September 20, 2022 to January 23, 2023

Munch at the Musée d’Orsay: “We are born, we love, we die, this is the heart of the exhibition”. Interview with the curator | Knowledge of the Arts