The Happiest Time of Munch’s Life

The Happiest Time of Munch’s Life

Restored by the son of one of Edvard Munch’s greatest patrons, the Norwegian artist’s idyllic summer estate on the Kristiania fjord was the setting for some of his most mystical works.
Restored by the son of one of Edvard Munch’s greatest patrons, the Norwegian artist’s idyllic summer estate on the Kristiania fjord was the setting for some of his most mystical works.

“I have bought the villa Nedre Ramme,” wrote Edvard Munch to his cousin Ludvig Ravensberg in 1910. The summer house, situated some 40 kilometers from Oslo (then Kristiania), was situated on a private cove near the idyllic harbor village of Hvitsten. Munch rhapsodized that it was “surrounded by woods and a large garden with 600 meters of coastline – it is the most beautiful property by the Kristiania fjord.” That beauty now informs an exhibition of the artist’s works on paper staged at the very heart of Munch’s haven.

Ramme is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Munch’s work and anyone interested in his storied life. Today, Petter Olsen, the son of Thomas Fredrik Olsen, one of Munch’s greatest patrons, owns the estate and has revitalized an area that was, a century ago, a focal point for artistic activity. With the proceeds from the sale of a pastel version of The Scream at Sotheby’s in 2012, Olsen built the sumptuous Ramme Fjordhotell in the middle of the woodland and meticulously restored Munch’s summerhouse by the water.

A powerful and vibrant painting, offered during the Modern Evening Auction this May, speaks of Munch’s emotional attachment to the Oslo Fjord. Fjordlandskap from the Olsen Collection captures the trees, rocks and water of his emotional harbor in expressive strokes of greens and blues. Painted on the shoreline at Hvitsten circa 1918, it delivers the feeling of nature in paint. He later depicted his models as naked as winter birches on this stage. Here, however, we find the summer branches dressed in their finest yellow foliage. Munch depicts new growth.

Edvard Munch, Fjordlandskap (circa 1918). Oil on canvas, 22 ¾ x 33 ½ inches. Estimate: $1-1.5 million
“It is the most beautiful property by the Kristiania fjord.”
- Edvard Munch

The sale coincides with the opening of “Edvard Munch: Trembling Earth,” an extraordinary exhibition arriving at the Munch Museum in Oslo after showing at the Clark Museum, MA, and Museum Barberini, Potsdam. The first major exhibition dedicated to Munch’s landscapes, it reexamines the artist best known for his figurative paintings and comprises a stunning meditation on nature’s ability to embody and reflect human emotion.

At Ramme today perhaps the greatest pleasure for art lovers lies underneath the hotel, where Olsen has created a private basement gallery to house his collection of works by Munch and other artists who painted here in the late 19th and early 20th century. Figures who clambered over the rocks and wove their way through the trees included Christian Krohg, Frits Thaulow and Theodor Kittelsen (the godfather of Nordic fairy-tale painting, whose own house sits nearby). All are represented on the gallery walls.

On a bright fall afternoon – with the trees turning ochre and orange – I tour a special exhibition of the works on paper in the company of Olsen and the collection’s curator Margrethe Lømo. I am instantly struck by the diversity of mediums on show: drawings, lithographs, etchings, pastels, woodcuts, watercolors. At the center of the space is one of Munch’s printing presses, along with several lithograph stones on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo. The subject matter of the works is equally varied – portraits of friends, coastal landscapes, symbolic scenes, exhibition posters. The thread is the location.

“You have the whole story of his life and work here,” states Olsen, who has spent years acquiring works connected to Munch’s time in the region. Seeing art in its context, he reflects, “makes a huge impression on people.” Lømo agrees: “We have his scenery, we have his house and we have his artwork. There are no other places like this that have that kind of connection to Munch.”

The exhibition orchestrates a well-known symphony in an unusual key. “The graphic works give more information and different layers,” Lømo explains. “It broadens the whole history.” For Munch, drawing was a starting point; he worked in pencil, crayon, charcoal and ink. The curator notes that his pastel drawings “border on the painterly in their expression,” while his watercolors are translucent with natural hues.

A nearly abstracted watercolor of pines and fruit trees from the year after he bought the property at Ramme – a collection of citric shades of foliage – highlights how vibrant and bountiful he saw this landscape. A photograph from the period shows the painter walking thought the fields here. Miraculously for Munch, he is smiling.

“He has isolated himself somewhat from the outside world … [with] a few hundred animals – horses and dogs and pigeons and peacocks.”
- Jappe Nilssen, author and critic

“He has isolated himself somewhat from the outside world,” wrote the author and critic Jappe Nilssen, noting that Munch shared this sanctuary with “a few hundred animals – horses and dogs and pigeons and peacocks.” Several striking woodcut portraits of Nilssen feature in the exhibition, in which Munch conjures his friend’s features out of a little more than a handful of grooves.

Other portraits reveal Munch’s wider circle: the bohemian anarchist Hans Jaeger is captured in a noirish lithograph; Nilssen and Jaeger share a bottle of absinthe in a brooding pastel. A series of works depict his maid and model, Ingeborg Kaurin. Were they lovers? “Take a look at the paintings and the titles, and I won’t say anything more,” says Olsen. “It might have been his happiest time.”

Photo by Per Sollerman

In addition to the presentation of works on paper there are two further galleries, one showing pictures by other artists connected to Ramme and Hvitsten, and a separate room for Munch’s oil paintings, many painted in the region. One of the most spectacular of these is Waves, a large picture of undulating, rhythmic breakers on the local shoreline that Olsen acquired in 2006. “I went to Sotheby’s on my birthday. I thought, ‘My God, the Waves! It has to come to Ramme, back to Hvitsten.” Two paintings of Petter’s mother Henriette, shimmering in a yellow summer dress, emphasize the personal connections between the artist and collector’s family.

The connection continues with Olsen’s restoration of Nedre Ramme, which Petter describes as Munch’s “vitalist hideaway.” The building is cocooned at the end of a short lane nearby, perched on a bank overlooking an orchard – which features in a 1915 watercolor of his maid and her sister picking apples – and a small bay. It is a four-bedroom clapboard prism of windows. This summer, having been hidden from public view for three quarters of a century, it opened its doors again, allowing visitors to book a retreat where Munch once lived so happily and painted and printed so fruitfully.

Left: Edvard Munch, Fjordlandskap (prøvetrykk i farger), 1913-14. Photo by Helene Skoglund Johnsen. Right: Edvard Munch, Nøytralien, circa 1915. Photo by Grev Wedel Plass Auksjoner.

In 1912, Munch installed a lithographic press at Ramme, to which he added a press for etchings, printing plates from Germany and Japanese paper. The second floor of his summerhouse became a graphic workshop. Today, guests can watch the sun rise and set from those same rooms. Olsen’s next dream is to stage a gallery show of the artist’s decorations for the Oslo University auditorium, painted here at Ramme and currently held at the Munch Museum.

Edvard Munch, Sun, 1911. From the Oslo University Auditorium. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Olsen’s enthusiasm echoes Munch’s love for this pine-peppered place. In the latter half of the artist’s life, Oslo was for business, home to many of his collectors, both private and institutional. But Ramme, which remained in his possession until his death in 1944, was where he came to breath and work. Munch described it as “the only place where I can have peace.”

Impressionist & Modern Art

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