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.
The first thing you see is the sun. It floats above a green landscape, radiating white and yellow and even green and bluish light outward in every direction. There is nothing coded, nothing hidden. It is, as Knausgaard points out in his catalogue, “self-evident.” To paint just the sun, merely the sun, is characteristic of Munch: “He was often on the lookout for the iconic, that is to say, the visual essence of a motif. … The sun is a symbol, but it is also something in itself, and Munch paints this duality.” The sun is the giver of life, a metaphor for a beneficent god, the center of the solar system, and so on. But it was also what Munch saw one morning in Kragerø, just a little while after he had suffered a nervous breakdown. “It’s as though he wanted to do the same thing with the tangible world as he had previously done with the interior world,” Knausgaard writes. “He swept conventions aside and attempted just as brutally, directly and iconically to express what he saw. That he chose the sun as a motif is easy to understand, because when it rises, everything begins afresh. Darkness retreats, the day breaks, the world becomes visible again.”
The “Light and Landscape” room is filled with images of this world made visible, inhabited and tended in gardens and orchards, coming forth in fruit and flowers. One painting from 1942, just two years before the artist’s death, shows a man standing on a ladder to paint the wall of a house. A red rectangle is in the background—a barn, probably, though Munch worked so quickly that he didn’t quite spell it out. The old man is tending to his home. But what he is painting, like the quality of Munch’s canvas, doesn’t really matter. Munch’s motif here is the activity of painting itself. This late painting has never been exhibited before, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not a great technical achievement, and looks more like a study or a sketch than a finished piece. And it is precisely for this reason that it interests Knausgaard. With the delightful candor of the non-expert, of someone unafraid to pose a reasonable question, Knausgaard asks in the catalogue what Munch was after in painting this image: “It can’t have been much. It was not to create great art, it was not to paint a masterpiece, and it was quite simply to capture the essence of this little scene.”
Among all the images in this first room of harvests, flowers and women in gardens, a dusky picture of Adam and Eve hangs with an allegorical starkness. The two biblical figures appear in nineteenth-century summer garb, with Eve wearing a round straw hat and Adam in a rustic suit, so dark he seems to be a shadow lurking beneath the tree. But if the first room recreates Eden, the next evokes Dante’s forest. The room is big and dark; only the walls are illuminated. Almost all of the canvases depict trees: big trunks next to small humans, mottled elms, gloomy woods. These are private paintings, made toward the end of the artist’s life on his country estate. These paintings are not for us, Knausgaard writes, but for Munch.
The paintings turn even further inward in the next room, “Chaos and Energy,” to the dynamics of art itself. The first two paintings—The Artist and His Model, another painting about painting, followed by a bare sketch of the jealousy motif (the outlines of a Scream-like face looking straight on while a man and a woman hold hands beneath a tree in the background)—point to the dangers of representation. For Munch as for Knausgaard, “Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning,” and art threatens to derail its affect when it encourages distance between the viewer and the subject of the work.
Three grotesque concrete sculptures in the middle of the room— whose chunky materiality is unavoidable—seem to emerge from “The Storm,” one of Munch’s most misanthropic images and the emotional low point of the exhibition. On the left a man and a woman walk forward, bent under the weight of an invisible burden. Behind them, bodies blend together into a wretched stream.
The wall of prints across the room—the four impressions of “Toward the Forest,” showing a man and a woman holding one another as they walk away, into the dark black grains the woodblock left on the paper—has a restorative effect. Covering the wall in a similar configuration to the elm tree images in the previous room, these prints signal an effort to move away from the turbulence of the mind and back to the world: prints with titles like Trees by the Sea, Starry Night, Mystical Landscape with Patches of Snow, The Apple Tree, and so on, until we get to The Oak, the proverbial symbol of strength, solidity, rootedness, and the quiet opposite of the self-reflexive paintings with which “Chaos and Energy” began. As in the Norwegian countryside, there are probably more trees in this exhibition than anything else.
Except, perhaps, faces. The final room of the exhibit—“The Others”—is crowded with portraits ranging from tiny prints to larger-than-life canvases. The yellow walls and the bright colors of the women’s dresses and men’s ties are a shock of light after the dark black walls of the previous room. These are people Munch knew.
“If we wish to understand a human being, such as for instance Munch,” Knausgaard writes in the catalogue, “and by doing so perhaps catch a glimpse of something in ourselves that we have not seen before, we must also understand who he was together with others, and who they were together with him.” We meet Ludvig Ravensberg, noticing how he fidgets with his right thumb and index finger as he speaks, and Ingse Vibe, who leans over her fence and smiles beneath her summer hat. We size up Consul Christen Sandberg, a massive man barely contained by his brown cummerbund; Jappe Nilssen’s intense stare draws us in. And the half-illuminated face of Edvard Munch, aged 25, standing deep in the painting, and the broad, angled faced of Edvard Munch “with Hands in Pockets,” aged fifty. Finally, we face the artist whose mind we have wandered through like a forest, whose spiral inward we have followed back out into the world again.
Knausgaard admits to being a traditionalist. All of the paintings he likes have “a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality,” and he locates the source of their power in that space where “the world seemed to step forward from the world.” We come closest to the divine in the space opened up by good art: the part of reality that is always incomprehensible, always out of reach and ineffable, yet real—like the mysterious forces at work in our selves. This is what Knausgaard calls the beyond.
Things changed when we stopped believing in a beyond, when humanity became our obsessive focus. Knausgaard locates that moment in Munch. “It was in his paintings that, for the first time, man took up all the space. … It is as if humans swallow up everything, make everything theirs.” There is no retreating from this new way of seeing the world. “Man is gestalted by Munch, his inner life is given an outer form, the world is shaken up, and what was left after the door had been opened was the world as a gestalt.” What comes after, however, rings false: it relies on the artist inventing meaning, rather than encountering it.1
At the end of Towards the Forest is “Midsummer Night’s Eve” (1942), one of the last paintings Munch ever made. Like the sun painting, it is set slightly apart from the rest, as a kind of coda in an alcove in front of the double doors of the exit. The space is small, so we are forced to get close to the view of the valley that opens up before us. The buildings are scattered in a shallow dale; on the other side a dark blue mountain rises into the yellow sunset sky. On the right stands a crowd of figures who look on—little more than streaks of red and black paint—and dance around a bonfire. And in the foreground lies a woman in a white dress, leaning back into the arms of a seated man. The dominant color of the painting is green; the mood calm. Although the man and the women are not the subject of the painting, I couldn’t help thinking of the Adam and Eve from the first room, and the couple, clutching each other as they walk toward the forest. Staring at this painting, I forgot about “The Storm.” I forgot about Munch’s anguish. Instead I felt something else, approaching a kind of comprehension—one of those sentimental moments that move you in spite of yourself.