‘I could never have been in the same room as Munch,’ Karl Ove Knausgaard tells me as he lights a cigarette. ‘That would be impossible, he protected himself so much.’ As Knausgaard discusses Towards the Forest, the summer exhibition that he has curated for the Munch Museum in Oslo, the pleasures and perils of being unguarded are a recurring theme. For while Edvard Munch withdrew from the world, Knausgaard gives freely of himself.
We’re sitting in the museum’s garden, drinking coffee under a graphite sky on a cold spring day; the trees in the neighbouring botanical gardens are still skeletal. Knausgaard’s features — wolfish eyes and a steel-grey beard — match the setting perfectly, although he also has a shy, fleeting smile and is impeccably polite.
Like Munch, Knausgaard is a Norwegian phenomenon: a creative and confessional spirit whose work has achieved international acclaim. The author’s series of autobiographical novels, collectively titled My Struggle, deal in forensic detail with alcoholism, marital turmoil, mental health and ageing. These international bestsellers have made him, again like Munch, the embodiment of tortured introspection.
Edvard Munch, Rugged Tree Trunks, 1919-20. Oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Photo: Ove Kvavik, Munch Museum. All subsequent photography by Ivar Kvaal
In Towards the Forest, he aims, by resurrecting obscure works from the museum’s vast holdings, to find a fresh perspective on one of the most well-documented artists in the world. ‘The iconic quality, which is Munch’s quality, is also something that is standing between him and us,’ says Knausgaard. ‘You can never see anything new in them. You can see them on a coffee cup.’ Many of the paintings he has chosen for the exhibition have been ‘stuck in the basement since the war’.
On Munch’s death in 1944, he left the city of Oslo a trove that included some 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings and 18,000 prints, by far the greatest collection of the artist’s work. Next year, the museum moves to a new site next to the Oslo Fjord, and Knausgaard explains that the exhibition is ‘a way of throwing everything up in the air’.
The project has altered his views on Munch. ‘When you are a Norwegian, he’s the only artist at an international level that you know of. Everybody is familiar with his life and artworks,’ he says. ‘Then when I was 40, I was given a present of the catalogue of all of his paintings and I was so surprised. Because there was so much I hadn’t seen, so much that was exciting and that was outside of the iconic Munch.’
Edvard Munch, Blood Waterfall, 1915-16. Photo: Ove Kvavik, Munch Museum
There was a quiet side to the man who created The Scream. Knausgaard has selected many early landscapes and plein-air works that are full of light and sun and colour. ‘His most famous paintings in a way are very literary, kind of loaded with meaning. And these are unloaded,’ says Knausgaard.
He has also chosen late paintings, completed at the artist’s estate at Ekely on the fringes of Oslo, where Munch lived in solitude following his recovery from a breakdown in the early 20th century. ‘A lot of the paintings I have chosen are of trees, and really it’s just trees,’ he says, laughing smoke into the air. ‘You don’t feel his loneliness or anything. He lived in the painting. He had no ambition, I think. He didn’t want to make a masterpiece.’
Towards the Forest delivers a sequence of rooms with opposing moods: harmonic views of gardens; eerie figureless landscapes; elemental studies with rough surfaces; and, finally, Munch’s tentative reconnection to people through portraiture. It is a journey into the heart of darkness and back again.
‘Part of a Munch painting’s magic is that it brings together its time and yours, and the distance that is inherent in loneliness is suspended in that moment’
Following the success of My Struggle, Knausgaard can empathise with Munch’s focus following his heyday in the 1890s. Last year, the author published four books that explore the changing seasons. As with Munch’s work at Ekely, this represents a shift in gaze away from the navel. ‘It is the way out of the inner self, into the world,’ he says, adding that now he just wants to maintain a creative flow. ‘That is very similar to Munch’s last 30 years.’
There are other parallels. Both men had troubled relationships with their fathers and found success outside Norway (Munch worked in Paris and Berlin; Knausgaard lives in Sweden). The greatest similarity, however, lies in their skill in making the personal universal. In their hands, suffering translates.
Munch’s ability to endure is key to his genius, observes Knausgaard. The painter survived Spanish flu, madness and being shot, but was permanently traumatised by the loss of his mother and sister to illness when he was young. ‘He must have had survivor’s guilt, I’m sure,’ says Knausgaard. ‘I think his relationship to women was messed up by the longing for the sister and the morbidity of women. And he is able to paint that attraction.’
Karl Ove Knausgaard outside the Munch Museum
Knausgaard takes out his iPhone and swipes through to a sketch of a waterfall of blood cascading between pale hills. ‘It is normally said that this is about the First World War. For me, it is about his relationship with women.’
Art, says Knausgaard, whether it be painting or writing, is a search for solace. He elaborated on this theme last year in a lecture at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. ‘If you have ever stood in a room in front of a painting by Munch, or Van Gogh or Rembrandt for that matter, you will know that part of the painting’s magic is that it brings together its time and yours, and there is comfort in that, because even the distance that is inherent in loneliness is suspended in that moment.’
Knausgaard refers to Munch’s ‘limitless sensitivity’, an attribute that could equally apply to himself. ‘I was just haunted by being with other people. When I was a kid I was crying all the time,’ he says, before adding, with that ephemeral smile: ‘Now I have this place where I’m free, and that’s in writing. And if there is a way that I can identify with Munch, it must be in this. He must have felt that paintings could be a shelter for him.’
Towards the Forest — Knausgaard on Munch is at the Munch Museum until 8 October