Exhibition the Munch Museum

What kind of connection could appear between Edvard Munch´s The scream and the fossil Ida?  Or between his lithographic series Alpha and Omega and a tableau of stuffed animals?  Such more or less probable links between Munch's art and natural history are the starting point for this exhibition, staged at the Munch Museum and the Natural History Museum. It will also have an offshoot at the Stenersen Museum where works by a group of contemporary artists will be exhibited at the end of August.

Through Nature places Edvard Munch’s art in a context with natural history objects and artefacts from Munch’s day and the present. The title of the exhibition is taken from Munch’s poetic words in connection to his motif The Scream, where he spoke of hearing “…a huge, unending scream course through nature”. The exhibition has come about through close cooperation with the Munch Museum’s neighbour the Natural History Museum, which generously lent objects from its paleontological, geological, zoological and botanical collections. The exhibition also features a “Munch Path” in the Botanical Garden. This is the first time the Munch Museum and the Natural History Museum collaborate on an exhibition.  Such cooperation between an art museum and a natural history museum is a unique event in Norway. The exhibition is a pioneering initiative providing surprising perspectives on the two museums’ collections.

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The essence of the exhibition can be found in many ways in the monumental painting The Researchers (1911/1925-27) in the Munch Museum’s lecture hall. Seated in the centre of the picture is a buxom woman breastfeeding an infant. She is like life itself, surrounded by children who are actively studying the natural environment around them in a wide, open beach landscape. In a grand way, Munch manages here to say something about humanity’s place in the universe, our curiosity and search for knowledge about the world – as an inherent element in a harmonic natural context. In his dramatic motif The Scream, however, humankind is thrust into the same overpowering nature, interpreted as something terrifying and abysmal. 

“Metabolism” and “Crystallisation”

Another gateway picture in this exhibition is the painting Metabolism (1898-1899), which depicts a nude woman and man by a tree trunk – an Adam and Eve of sorts. The motif is framed in carved wood featuring a human and an animal skull, buried in the soil between tree roots – life and death interwoven.  Metabolism is the chemical process by which cells take on nutrients and rid themselves of waste. This occurs in all living organisms. Edvard Munch saw the same process in the cycle of nature, where death and decay are continuously followed by, and nurture, new life forms.

A fallen tree trunk or a dead animal in the forest will gradually decompose in the soil and become fresh nutrients and living organisms. In a literary fragment Munch wrote:   “Up from my rotting carcass flowers shall spring up – and I shall be in them – Eternity”.

Crystallisation is another vital concept for Munch, borrowed from contemporary currents, some scientific, and some rather esoteric. He gave the notion a personal interpretation in several lithographs and drawings – and in certain literary notes.

In a crystallisation process a gas or liquid changes to a solid form. In this, Munch perceived an image of nature’s uncontrollable readiness to take on new lives and forms. He also saw the body’s decomposition after death and further transformation as the path to a bright “Land of Crystals” where nothing ever happens. In texts with more of an art philosophical leaning, he understands crystallisation as the seeking of form in an artistic process – something which infuses a picture with power, life and consolidated meaning.

Ida and The Scream

Through Nature consists of nine chapters. The first chapter is titled “Human Beings and Evolution”, centred on the confrontation between Munch’s The Scream and the fossil Ida. Both of these artefacts are world renowned icons. Ida was a scientific sensation when it was presented in 2009 as the world’s most ancient, complete primate fossil, 47 million years old. Ida is an important transitional form in the evolutionary stage from early mammals to today’s prosimians, monkeys and apes – primates, which include human beings. Her front molars are a little too small to make her fit into the direct lineage which leads to modern humans. This means Ida is thus more of an evolutionary primal aunt. But she should resemble the animal we descended from 47 million years ago. Charles Darwin’s over 150-year-old theory of natural selection brought about a fundamental change in our understanding of humankind and our place in nature. Darwin reasoned that species change in the course of time as traits that are better adapted to the environment and producing offspring are more likely to be passed on to future generations and evolve. Humans, like all contemporary plants and animals, are thus the result of a long chain of evolution. The discovery of Ida has helped science in its perception of a part of this chain.

Munch’s motif The Scream in its multiple versions has become an icon at a par with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Headline-making thefts and the auction record set at Sotheby’s in New York in 2012 have contributed to this overwhelming attention.

Such publicity can distract us from the gravity of the picture. Interpretations often highlight “the anxiety of modern man”.  But the question the work poses about humankind becomes even more acute when we ponder it in relation to Ida and the inconceivable dimension of time she opens up. Both The Scream and Ida provide a perspective to human existence and vulnerability and put each other in relief.

We also present fossils that are over 100 million years older in this room. Mounted on the wall are fish, crustaceans and the wing bone of a pterodactyl. They were excavated from 150-million-year-old limestone formations in Solnhofen, in Southern Germany. At the time this area was closer to the equator and consisted of shallow seas and lagoons. The lagoon became very salty and animals that washed in died quickly. They sank to the bottom and eventually were petrified in the chalky bottom sediments. This solidified into a type of limestone which easily splits into slabs and which has been quarried for centuries. For a long time Solnhofen was the only spot where quality stone could be acquired for lithography, a graphic technique invented in the late 1700s. Thus the type of rock that Munch utilised to make his lithographs link to fabulous natural history. Research on skulls that Munch’s good friend Professor Kristian Schreiner was engaged in was also based on a Darwinian perspective and attempts to trace the ancestry of the Norwegian populace.

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The Tree of Life – The Light – The Realm of Animals – The Plant Kingdom

In the chapter titled “The Tree of Life” we touch on Munch’s ideas about “metabolism”, together with his repeated use of the tree as a central motif. The natural history implications of the motifs Madonna and Jealousy are presented. The crux of the chapter “The Light” is Munch’s intense Sun motif and radiation as basic natural phenomena. White sunlight contains the colour spectrum we see in rainbows. The exhibition also dwells on colour as a physical substance; the pigments that Munch used in his paintings also encompass natural history with their connections to various minerals.

Zoology is brought into the exhibition in relation to Munch’s lithographic series Alpha and Omega, a satirical animal and human fable. This is displayed along with a tableau of stuffed animals and sea creatures preserved in jars. We are confronted in a way with the wildness and chaos of nature. The next chapter is called “The Plant Kingdom”, which leans more in the direction of the cultivation of nature. In this room we find many of Munch’s motifs from his home at Ekely – fruit trees in bloom, the ploughing of fields and motifs from the elm forest. A special room is dedicated to “The Seasons”, where the selection of pictures will be changed with the seasons, from spring to summer, autumn and winter.

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Nature - culture

Through Nature wishes to challenge the traditional division between nature and culture that has dominated Western thought in fundamental ways. This is partly incarnated in the way modern museums are organised, as natural history museums on the one hand and cultural history museums on the other. The schism is also expressed in the way the humanities and the natural sciences have established different academic traditions at universities. The relationship between these rather disassociated spheres of knowledge comprises the point of departure for current disputes within academic circles and in the political and public discourses of contemporary society.  Nature and culture are ideologically charged concepts which crop up in debates about everything from gender roles and the climate crisis to biotechnology. Two or three years ago the Norwegian TV programme “Hjernevask” [Brainwash] triggered an extensive debate in which this antagonism, emanating from the issue of nature versus nurture in human psychology and sociology, with emphasis on the sexes and gender identity.

We touch on this contradiction here in this exhibition, with Munch’s art as our point of origin. Art history and other disciplines within the humanities usually establish the framework for the museum’s work with Munch’s art. In this case we see his work in relation to sciences such as geology, palaeontology, zoology and botany. In our combination of museum artefacts from two totally different collections, we try to challenge interpretations of Munch’s art while offering a fresh look at the natural history objects. Munch’s perceptual cosmos was tainted by the biological attitudes and natural history breakthroughs of his day. He kept himself fairly well updated in these fields – ranging from August Strindberg’s highly speculative theories to the German zoologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel’s “unity of nature”, as well as the obvious: Darwin’s theory of evolution. Munch tended to use these rather freely as sources for his personal philosophy of life, but they are infused in many of his motifs, for instance in his concepts of “metabolism” and “crystallisation”.

Munch Path

Solen. 1912-13. scan fra 35mm film, 1971

A “Munch Path” can be followed at the Natural History Museum where specific plants, trees and facilities in the Botanical Garden – as well as objects in the collections indoors – are linked to Munch’s art. The path is incorporated in the exhibition and introduces us to the living collection of the Natural History Museum.

Maybe one can also experience aesthetic and sculptural objects here? Some installations will comment on how an artist like Munch chooses to depict nature – as compared to how it is portrayed by natural history.

We hope this exhibition provides new perspectives on Munch’s art, while clarifying how the things we perceive respectively as nature and culture are actually interlaced.

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