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January 24, 2011

Artist Profile: Edvard Munch, Part One, An Artist's Life

In honor of the Norweigan artist Edvard Munch who died 67 years ago this week, the ARCA blog is posting a three-part series about the life and legacy of the artist associated with two famous art thefts. The author, Therese Veier, attended ARCA’s International Art Crime Conference in July 2010. Ms. Veier has majored in art history and is now completing a final examination in law at the University in Oslo.

By Therese Veier, ARCA blog guest writer

Today, January 23, is the 67th anniversary of the death of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch who lived to the age of 80. People from all over the world travel to Oslo to visit the Munch Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Oslo. His paintings Skrik (The Scream) and Madonna are iconic. The Scream is one of the most reproduced art images, almost equal to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Munch painted several versions of The Scream, as he did with many other motifs. Frequently used themes in his art were love, fear, death and melancholy. Munch did not like to sell his art, which he often referred to as his children. He usually sold works once a year and lived the remaining year on the income from the sales.

According to Munch’s will, the Oslo council inherited approximately 1,100 paintings; 15,500 prints; 4,700 drawings; 6 sculptures; and almost 500 print plates, tools, documents, photographs, note books and furniture which went to the Munch Museum collection. The value today is hard to estimate precisely, but a rough estimate of the collection’s value was set at 20 to 40 billion Norwegian kroner (NOK) some years ago. Inger, Munch’s sister, inherited his collection of letters, 100 prints of her own choosing, and a considerable sum of money. Upon her death, Inger left the museum Munch’s letters as well as several art works. With additional gifts, the museum today owns over half of his paintings and all of his print motifs, which places it in a unique position internationally, and provides the basis for special exhibitions within the museum, worldwide exhibitions, and research. The museum exhibits approximately 70-80 paintings and 70-80 prints at all times. The remaining part of the inheritance remains in storage, except from a small selection of works on loan to exhibitions abroad. In addition, the National Gallery of Art in Oslo and Stenersenmuseet also have important works by Edvard Munch in their collections. The businessman and art collector Rolf E. Stenersen supported and bought Munch’s art early on, and upon his death, the Oslo council inherited his art collection as well. Stenersen and Munch became close friends and Stenersen wrote a biography about the artist.

Because Munch’s will did not specify anything about his large private house at Ekely, his studios and the furniture, all this was given to his heirs, and then bought by the Oslo council in 1946. The idea of building the Munch Museum on Ekely was proposed early on; however, the council tore down the main house in 1960 and built a parking lot, then decided to build the museum in Tøyen, as a result of a political decision to spread the cultural institutions in Oslo. Ekely is behind the Vigeland Park in the west part of Oslo. Tøyen is east in Oslo, and the museum is situated next to the Tøyen Botanical Garden. Luckily, Munch’s studio on Ekely was saved and is used today as residency for artists. The Munch Museum opened in 1963, on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The expenses for the new museum building were financed with profits from Oslo Cinematography, a state-owned company that owned the cinemas in Oslo. The Munch Museum’s website in Oslo is mainly written in Norwegian, but some information is translated to English.

How has Oslo council treated the inheritance left them by Edvard Munch, the most important Norwegian artist, in terms of conservation, priority, adequate funding, study and research?

The following two stories will first address the state of the Munch Museum, followed by a selection of Munch thefts from museums in Norway.