Waking the Undead: The Restoration of Edvard Munch’s ‘Vampire’

Waking the Undead: The Restoration of Edvard Munch’s ‘Vampire’

Munch’s “Vampire” paintings are so sought after that this example was infamously stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Safe in the institution’s care since the 90s, the painting is now undergoing conservation that will restore the enigmatic scene to its original liveliness.
Munch’s “Vampire” paintings are so sought after that this example was infamously stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Safe in the institution’s care since the 90s, the painting is now undergoing conservation that will restore the enigmatic scene to its original liveliness.

A re vampires immortal? Well, in the case of Edvard Munch’s Vampire, his enigmatic 1893 painting of a man caught in a woman’s terminal grip – or perhaps her loving embrace – everlasting life requires an occasional nip ’n’ tuck.

“Even eternally young vampires go under the knife every now and then,” says Mie Mustad of the Munch Museum, one of a team of four picture conservators spending their summer on a forensic restoration of the painting. Talking to me in the pristine glare of their vast studio, high up in the new, epically proportioned museum that overlooks the Oslo fjord, we encircle Vampire, which lies on a work top like a body on a gurney. The conservators peer over it, surgeons of sorts.

Munch produced several versions of Vampire – paintings, drawings and woodblock prints – and in the years since it has become one of the artist’s most intriguing and sought-after motifs. In 2008, an 1894 version of the painting sold at Sotheby’s New York for $38.2 million. The original composition was executed in Berlin during Munch’s short-lived flirtation with a group of Nordic artists that would meet, argue and pair off at a bohemian tavern called the Black Piglet. The figures featured were the Swedish author Adolf Paul and an unknown female model. Paul recalled entering Munch’s messy studio one day to find “a girl with fiery red locks streaming about her like flowing blood.”

The painting in the Munch Museum, which houses the artist’s personal collection bequeathed to the city of Oslo on his death in 1944, is one of the earliest versions and has had a tumultuous history. A gash on its top right corner – from an unrecorded incident – has required extensive repair. And in 1988 it was stolen from the museum’s former site by Pål Enger, one of a gang that later snatched The Scream from Norway’s National Gallery. To steal Vampire, Enger broke a museum window, put his arm through the hole and simply lifted the picture off the gallery wall. Although returned, the canvas was scratched during the heist.

Edvard Munch’s Vampire (1893) before its present conservation. Photos: Munchmuseet
“Most artists are uninterested in the longevity of artworks.”
- Mie Mustad, Paintings Conservator, Munch Museum

But the real issue for Mustad and her colleagues – Eva Storevik Tveit, Inger Barbara Grimstad and Terje Syversen – is the legacy of earlier restoration work. Period photographs from the 1950s highlight the poor condition of the picture shortly before those interventions. Munch was famously slapdash about the storage of his works – and it shows. The lower edge of the canvas was rotting away, due to water damage. So the picture was lined onto a secondary canvas, extensive layers of varnish were added, along with selected retouching to the paint, using a process called tratteggio, in which losses are painted in with fine lines to make the painting appear complete when viewed from a distance. Another thin layer of wax was added in the late 1970s, notes Syversen. Inevitably, such work disintegrates over time.

A masterpiece such as Vampire can accumulate seams and strata of previous conservation efforts. “We have removed three layers [of veneer] plus all the retouching, plus the fillings,” says Grimstad. “We’ve actually removed the whole job that they did. We are redoing it in principle.” The work will now remain unvarnished, just as the painter preferred. Key to the current makeover is the use of contemporary “conservation grade” materials – all of which are reversible and more stable than those used in the mid-20th century.

Paintings Conservator Inger Barbara Grimstad works on Munch’s Vampire.

Today, the museum’s conservation studio is equipped with the kind of resources you would expect in a spy lab: microscopes, x-ray florescence scanners and UV and infrared photography are all utilized. And then there are the “nanogels” – cleansing patches loaded with solvents that are gently laid on the canvas. “The properties of the gel can be assigned for your needs,” Grimstad explains. Over time, varnish naturally becomes brittle and yellow. Occasional overhauls are entirely normal, states Grimstad. “But it’s quite uncommon that a painting is lacking the bottom of the painting,” she laughs, adding that the damage had been hidden by the mid-century retouching. Like a skin graft, a new strip of canvas has been painstakingly applied.

When Munch died, piles and piles of unlined, unframed or unmounted pictures were discovered at his Ekely estate on the edge of Oslo. Mustad points out that his attitude is hardly unique: “Most artists are uninterested in the longevity of artworks.” For many, it is the motif that matters. Over the years, there have been wildly differing readings of the Vampire composition. Munch originally considered it a picture of a couple in a clinch – its initial title was Love and Pain – but when others saw it as an image of terror, he quickly adopted the more dramatic and marketable title of Vampire.

One lifelong fan of the Norwegian painter is the British artist Tracey Emin, whose monumental sculpture The Mother now sits outside the Munch Museum on the fringe of the fjord. At a talk at Sotheby’s London this spring, Emin noted that in Vampire she sees not an act of violence but “somebody cradling and protecting. I don’t see somebody tucking into somebody’s neck sucking a load of blood out.” What do the conservators think? Are they saving an image of affection or aggression? “It could be both, I think,” says Grimstad.

A gash in the upper-right corner has been repaired to be nearly imperceptible.

The meditative pace of conservation work – with its studious repetitions of removal and addition – suits Munch’s contemplative character (even if the painter disregarded the condition of his own works). The team – all of whom are painters themselves – often listen to podcasts and audio books on earbuds to sink into their own minutely focused worlds. The two key skills, notes Eva Storevik Tveit, are good eyes and patience. “Some people have just as good eyes as us but they don’t see in exactly the same way.”

The four-month restoration of Vampire, which has been supported by a special grant from the Bank of America, ends in August, at which point it will return to public view. It has, the conservators note, already injected new life into the picture. “It was such a fantastic surprise,” Mustad says. “You get more of this modern Munch surface back and his colors.” Subtle blues and greens have emerged from the darkness. Grimstad nods: “Munch is coming back.”


Impressionist & Modern Art

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