O slo’s citizens dive into their summers, which provide a balm to the sting of the long Norwegian winters. Edvard Munch concurred, he even told his long-time patrons Thomas and Henriette Olsen that they should give his paintings an occasional airing in the sunlight. However, as we see in two paintings from the Olsen Collection at Sotheby’s London – an uncanny landscape and an enigmatic self-portrait – Munch could find clouds even in the finest weather.
These paintings – seemingly warm, yet wrenched by undercurrents – were saved twice by Thomas Olsen, the Norwegian shipping magnate who built one of the most important collections of Munch’s work. Although both pictures were in German collections by the 1930s, they survived the Nazi purge of works perceived as ‘Degenerate Art’ and returned to Norway where they were bought by Olsen. Subsequently, when Norway was occupied in the Second World War, Olsen hid his collection, including The Scream, in a barn neighbouring his summer house.
Warmth – fleeting, cautious and overlaid with angst – is reflected in Summer Day or Embrace on the Beach, part of the Linde Frieze of 1904, and the later Self-Portrait with Palette (1926), two works that bring introspection to the great outdoors. Munch could plant thorns in what his compatriot Henrik Ibsen called “the primrose paths of summer”. But the complicated promise of summer remained a consistent theme: he created a vast mural of the sun for the festival hall of the University of Oslo and once painted bathers on a nudist beach, standing at his easel wearing nothing but a moustache.
In 1902, Munch completed a portrait of the German ophthalmologist and prominent art collector Dr Max Linde. Delighted with the result, Linde commissioned Munch to paint a frieze for his young children’s nursery but, aware of the artist’s preoccupations, he stipulated certain conditions. “I would ask you please to keep the subject childish, in other words, no kissing or loving couples,” Linde demanded of Munch. “The children as yet have no knowledge of such things. I thought it would be best to choose something with a landscape.”
For a suitable panorama, Munch – as was so often the case – looked to the Oslo fjord. At his home in Asgerstrand, a fishing village on the west coast of the fjord, he painted en plein air, splicing his nervous obsessions into the view. His biographer, Sue Prideaux, described the scene: “He went out to find the landscape elements that would make up the Linde motif, at that moment when the sun dips towards the horizon and its low beams bathe the world in light as soft as faded velvet.” However, working on the beach, he got into a fight with a group of drunken summer revellers. A local policeman had to watch over the artist in order to keep him out of trouble.
"Nature is not only what is visible to the eye – it is the inner reflection of the soul – in the mind’s eye"
Even in such an idyll, Munch couldn’t restrain his emotional and erotic anxieties, delivering a landscape of sailing boats and shingle but also – in other panels from the series – a brace of kissing couples. Linde decided, reluctantly, that the frieze was just too racy for his children’s eyes. He purchased a different work by the artist. Munch returned to Summer Day, adding the composition’s spectral couple, two figures lonely in their embrace, isolated even from one another.
Munch saw the Linde Frieze as an extension of his greatest cycle of works, The Frieze of Life, which he described as a “poem” of decorative pictures tracing life’s journey through joys and sorrows. And “through it winds the undulating coastline, edged by the ever-moving sea,” he noted. These are choppy waters.
The sea shapes characters as it does pebbles, slowly and irrevocably. It is no coincidence that Munch’s contemporary devotee Tracey Emin is another child of the seaside. The British artist, who grew up by the beaches of Margate on the English Channel, would, like Munch, understand the Lilliputian complex provoked in a person raised next to a vast expanse of nature. As Munch observed: “Nature is not only what is visible to the eye – it is the inner reflection of the soul.”
Autobiography was not solely a dark spring for Munch, however. Self Portrait with Palette, painted in 1926, is tentatively optimistic. In the two decades since his haunting interpretation of a summer day, Munch had survived a nervous breakdown and Spanish Flu. And yet here he is back in the sun, a successful man in his sixties and the toast of his nation, living quietly in his country estate. He is the picture of health.
“Alongside Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Munch is one of the greatest self-portraitists in all art history,” notes Amanda Partridge, Senior Researcher at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department. “He ruthlessly interrogated his image and identity in a series of paintings that began in 1882, when he was just 18, and continued for the rest of his life.” For Munch, a self-portrait was part confession, part investigation: he painted himself as wintery, an insomniac, sick, naked and neurotic, but also in the prime of life, virile and energetic (he was, after all, once celebrated as “the handsomest man in Norway”).
In Self Portrait with Palette, the ageing artist is open-shirted under blue skies at Ekely, the former market garden on Oslo’s fringes that Munch had bought in 1916. And yet, even surrounded by his berry bushes and orchards, he looks evasive, apprehensive even. Here is an artist who has survived against all expectations, particularly his own; but he has attained a stillness, of sorts, in the partial solace of summertime close to his beloved fjord.