"My only thought was, Yes! What an amazing assignment."
Karl Ove Knausgaard is talking about his initial response when asked to curate an exhibition of Edvard Munch's paintings.
For a couple of years now, the famed Norwegian novelist who gained international recognition with My Struggle, his six-volume autobiographical novel (an excerpt of which appeared on VICE.com), has been delving into the storage rooms in the basement of Oslo's Munch Museum. The museum's collection houses more than 1,700 paintings left by Edvard Munch, creator of that deeply recognizable icon of existential angst, The Scream, to the city of Oslo after his death in 1944. Met with an onslaught of press coverage and a packed reception party, Knausgaard's show consists of lesser-known and often-overlooked works from the collection. A few of the paintings have never even been shown in public before. With the exhibition comes a new book by Knausgaard, entitled So Much Longing on Such a Small Surface, an ambitious personal essay in which Knausgaard relates to Munch as one artist investigating the methods, goals, and intentions of another.
The guiding principle for Knausgaard was staying away from the icons. "All the most famous Munch paintings were made in the 1890s, and they are so well known, it is very difficult to actually see them," the 48-year-old writer explained. "To Munch, it was essential to create urgent work, work that would cut through everything we thought we knew about the world, all of the conventions of seeing in any given culture. When we look at The Scream [now], we do not see a naked expression of suffering, we see a painting that was sold for a hundred million dollars and that has become a cultural icon, shorthand for anxiety and alienation.
When his early paintings, like The Sick Child, a scene of his older sister on her deathbed, were first exhibited in 1886, Munch became a succès de scandal. His style was ridiculed as much as it was praised.
"My guiding question was whether it was possible to look at a Munch today, and not know what to think," Knausgaard explained. "That's how it was. Those who saw the paintings had no idea what to think, whether to laugh or cry, how to tell if the paintings were any good or not. Of course, we can never reconstruct that situation, but by exhibiting paintings that are atypical for Munch, we may be able to bring back some of that sense of uncertainty and risk."
When he said yes to the museum, Knausgaard didn't really think about the fact that he was an absolute beginner at curating art.
"In the first few months, I was really naïve: I saw nothing but possibilities. It was later I began having these fears: Maybe the paintings I've chosen aren't that good? Perhaps there's a reason they've hardly been exhibited before? What do I know about art? Nothing! I know nothing! I have no idea what's good and what's bad!"
Now he is curious to see how others will respond to Towards the Forest, as the exhibition is called.
"There is an obvious risk all people will see are just bad Munch paintings—there is probably a reason why many of them have never been exhibited. But even that is better than the usual rounds of hallelujahs and awe."
Knausgaard describes his early relationship to Munch as that of a typical Norwegian. "Being the only Norwegian artist recognized worldwide, Munch was kind of everywhere and nowhere when I grew up." He knew the iconic images, but at 17, he visited the National Gallery in Oslo on a school trip, and that's when he really saw Munch.
"It was as if the paintings wanted something from me, that they contained a power of expression that was so much stronger than anything I had ever seen before," Knausgaard said of the gallery in which Munch classics such as The Scream (1893), The Dance of Life (1899), and Melancholy (1892) are part of the permanent exhibition. I understood these paintings were on a higher level. It was a little like reading Dostoyevsky for the first time: emotions taking hold of you directly, no indirection."
"What do I know about art? Nothing! I know nothing! I have no idea what's good and what's bad!"
Knausgaard has taken a special interest in the last period of Munch's life, when he lived alone in a house on the outskirts of Oslo and painted every day. This is not the symbolist painter of nightmarish melancholy we know, but an artist looking to capture something simpler, often through looking at the everyday and mundane, as becomes clear in the titles on show: Apple Tree in the Garden (1932–42), Apple Tree by the Studio (1920–28), and Rugged Tree Trunks in Snow (1923).
"It was as if he lived in his paintings, that that was his world," Knausgaard said. "And in these paintings, it doesn't look like he was trying to paint well, to create that masterpiece that would command the attention of whoever saw it. It was as if he painted more for the process of painting itself than for the individual image."
This is especially clear in one of the last paintings Munch's ever made, Painter by the Wall, from 1942. It's a simple image of a sunny, quotidian scene, a man doing his job, painting a house. "No underlying meaning," Knausgaard writes in his book. "Was this where 64 years of painting had brought him?… The man on the ladder is painting a house. Munch is painting a picture—what exactly is the difference?
"In that late phase, Munch seems to have emptied his paintings of their intensity and meaning," he told me. "The sketchy, unfinished quality of his work here, the lack of information in some of these paintings—it calls into question what quality really is, which is something I often think about when I write."
Towards the Forest is not structured through chronology or different phases in Munch's work. It contains no title for any single image, no year of production. Instead, it is structured like a story, told through four rooms and a progression of themes and moods.
"It's a very simple narrative," he explained. "The first room shows people in nature, people at work, and the nature is idyllic—gardens, fields, a rocky beach landscape, light, and color." The bold blues and greens of Bathing Boys presents another harmonious scene, both intricate and humorous in the way it deals with the problem of depicting bodies partly above water, partly submerged in it.
"In the second room, nature is emptied of people," Knausgaard said. "There's a lot of forest, and in the end just ice and water." It features Cabbage Field, a painting that Knausgaard describes as particularly moving. Painted in shades of blue and green, yellow and orange, the patch seems to lead from the endlessness of cabbage rows into the darker blue of an unknown horizon.
The darkness deepens in the third room, where all the walls are painted pitch black. In this room, we see anguished, mask-like figures; three people in a room awkwardly looking away from one another; an intense feeling of jealousy sketched out in a couple of lines. Following this is a room full of Munch's life-size portraits—his sister, a woman he was in love with who married someone else, as well as the bourgeoisie, people he had met, had drinks with, perhaps even sold a painting to.
"The idea is that after seeing humans in nature, then just nature, and after taking a deep dive into the inner life of one person, we are released into the outer world again in the form of other humans."
Connecting to others was consistently a struggle for the notoriously reclusive artist, and in his book, Knausgaard presents Munch as a sensitive introvert, someone for whom art becomes a way to relate to a reality he often experiences at a distance. When reading about Knausgaard's Munch, it's hard not to think about the protagonist of the autobiographical My Struggle: Both use art as a means to escape from, and make sense of, the social complexities and pressures of everyday life.
I ask: "Do you identify with Munch?"
"With him as a person, no, but maybe with his art. I think it's the other way around: If my portrayal of Munch has anything in common with me, the traits I've given him are there because I understand the world through my experiences. If Munch resembles the protagonist of My Struggle, it's because I made him look like that, not because of anything he was. That being said: The most important features of Munch's life, his mother and his sister dying, and how that affected him, creating a wall between him and the world, and how he used art, first to break through that wall, and later as a place of solitude, a place where he could retreat to be undisturbed by the world—that's something he has in common with almost everyone I know that is serious about writing or art or making films. Not in every particular detail, but in broad strokes, what role art plays in a life."
"Has working on this changed your view of Munch in any way?" I ask.
"Yes, or perhaps not changed, more expanded," he said. "Through reading about his paintings—and here I am especially indebted to a fantastic book by art critic Stian Grøgaard—I've come away from it all with a deep respect for his paintings, and for how wild he really was, how free, and how brave. Few have failed more than Munch—and few have reached further."
Follow Ane Farsethås on Twitter. Knausgaard's quotes were translated from the Norwegian by the author.