Interviews

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Emil and Joachim Trier, The Other Munch, 2018, color, sound, 55 minutes.

This past September, the final installment of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle book series (Archipelago, 2012–18) was internationally released. Now, he has written a forthcoming book on Edvard Munch, So Much Longing in So Little Space (Penguin, 2019). “Towards the Forest,” an exhibition he curated at the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2017, is the subject of Joachim and Emil Trier’s film The Other Munch (2018), which explores the painter’s life and work through dialogues about it with Knausgaard

I WROTE A BOOK ABOUT EDVARD MUNCH’S PAINTINGS and how people relate to him today, with a little bit about his life, but I needed an opening. I wrote about the mystery of painting, which is how it is possible that a few colors on a canvas can fill you with so much emotion and such a feeling of presence and so much meaning. What is that? 

For me, being a Norwegian, Munch is the most famous artist there is. He’s everywhere, somehow. I remember schoolbooks that had his paintings as covers. He’s just always been there. The Kristiania Bohemians were based in Kristiania, which is now Oslo, in the 1880s and 1890s, and they were revolutionary in their views of society and art. Munch wasn’t a part of that, but I think he learned a lot from them, and especially from Hans Jaeger, whose motto was “Write your life,” which he did, and he was put in jail because of his writing. Norway is such a small country and outside of everything, but you had Henrik Ibsen, a world-class dramatist, and you had Munch, and you had Knut Hamsun. It’s strange to think about. 

Munch’s first breakthrough as a painter was painting memories—images from his own life and his own experience—which he did for ten years until he had a breakdown. He was paranoid and had been drinking too much, and he ended up in a mental hospital. When he came out, he didn’t look inward anymore. One of his great paintings from that period is of the sun that shines over the world and the things in the world, and that was what he painted for the rest of his life—what’s out there, instead of what’s in here. He lived by himself, and he painted every day. Marcel Proust lived in literature; Munch lived in painting. 

The Munch Museum asked me to give a speech for his 150th birthday. I immersed myself in his paintings and wrote the speech, and then they asked me if I wanted to curate an exhibition, which I did. The main challenge was to make it a powerful exhibition without using his most famous images and his best paintings—to present a different Munch from the picture we had of him. I wanted to try to think in that way, and to connect the rooms. It’s like writing a novel, because a novel is about creating a space where it’s possible to say things, to show things, and that was what I tried to do in this exhibition. It begins with the outside—in a harmonic world with nature, gardens, and oceans—and moves first into a more threatening scene with forests and fewer humans, and then into a room that I thought of as the interior world, which is of fragments, an intense inner life, and then it opens out again, to portraits of people. I was interested in the Munch behind the Munch, so to speak. 

There’s a painting by Munch, Cabbage Field, from 1915, and it’s very simple—it’s of a cabbage field and a sunset in the afternoon—but it always had a strong effect on me. When I picked it for the exhibition I could just stand there for half an hour and look at it. I tried to write about what is so hypnotic about that painting in the opening of my book. It’s a feeling that this is a world without me, or a world without the one who saw it, and it’s a terrible feeling, because in that moment you understand what it is to die, that you will no longer be here, and what that means. You can say it, and you can think it, but to understand it—that seldom happens. I have twice understood what death is, just in a glimpse, and both occasions had to do with art: the first was when I was reading a novel by the Swedish writer Carl-Henning Wijkmark, and then the second was when I was looking at Cabbage Field. Is that feeling in the painting, or is it in me?

 

 

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