Last spring Towards the Forest: Knausgaard on Munch opened at the Munch Museum in Oslo. At first glance, the invitation to curate the exhibit seems proof of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s installation in the Norwegian pantheon, justified by his fame alone. But this is not one dour Nordic genius paying homage to his dour Nordic predecessor. Knausgaard is not obligated by the curator’s aspiration to historical comprehensiveness, and refrains from the didactic tone that has become the lingua franca of placards and audio guides. Collaborating with curator Kari J. Brandtzaeg to comb through more than one thousand paintings, eighteen thousand prints, nearly eight thousand drawings and watercolors, and fourteen sculptures from the Munch Museum collection, Knausgaard selected 143 rather obscure works from the artist’s oeuvre, some exhibited for the first time.
According to the traditional account, Munch’s style underwent a dramatic change following a self-described “nerve crisis” that landed him in a mental institution in 1908. The paintings of the 1890s—his most iconic images—gave way to a more extroverted, colorful style, in which the primary subject is not the self, but others, and the world. But for Knausgaard, the world is never absent from Munch’s work. One of the few gnomic texts that adorn the otherwise spare walls of the Munch Museum reads, “Art is just as much about searching as it is about creating. But if that is so, searching for what? For ways of entering reality, of entering into the world.” This, too, is what Knausgaard sets out to do in his writing, where he speaks of “opening the world.”
Like each volume of My Struggle, the four galleries of the exhibit have titles: “Light and Landscape,” “The Forest,” “Chaos and Energy,” and finally “The Others.” Walking through the large, open rooms of the museum, I started thinking of each room as a volume in a visual book—in vertiginous moments it even seemed as if My Struggle had been made three-dimensional. And without the mediation of placards explaining the titles and dates of pieces, or their art historical significance, we are invited to see the art as Knausgaard does. “My only parameter with art,” the narrator of My Struggle says in Volume One, was “the feelings it aroused”:
The experience did not favor any particular epoch, nor any particular painter, since it could apply to a single work by a painter and leave everything else the painter did to one side. Nor did it have anything to do with what is usually termed quality; I could stand unmoved in front of fifteen paintings by Monet, and feel the warmth spread through my body in front of a Finnish impressionist of whom few outside Finland had heard.
The origin of this exhibition is told perhaps by accident in Autumn, Knausgaard’s latest book—itself like a picture gallery, with short, intensely descriptive essays on the objects and experiences that make up his life—when Knausgaard describes his first real encounter with Munch at the age of seventeen. Wandering through National Gallery in Oslo, he came upon the room devoted to the artist. When he entered the space, “everything else paled. This was what it was all about. Art was the exception. The exception opened up the moment, broke through time and created a presence, in the vortex of which everything became meaningful.” Knausgaard imagines that Munch experienced something similar when he was driven by some mysterious compulsion to paint.