Basel exhibition shows another side to Munch

Ashes I, a Munch Lithograph from 1896 (Beyeler Foundation)

The Beyeler Foundation in Basel is hosting the largest exhibition of works by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch ever seen outside Norway.

This content was published on March 28, 2007 - 09:42

The retrospective focuses on different aspects of Munch including his influence on Expressionism and his highly original contribution to modern art.

Munch, who died in 1944, had a difficult early life, marked by the deaths of his mother and his sister, and his father's depression.

His own health was not very good - he suffered bouts of alcohol abuse as well as a breakdown.

"He never wanted to get married. Besides maintaining his independence, he didn't want to transmit the family hereditary defects to his children," Dieter Buchhart, the exhibition's curator, told swissinfo.

Munch was, however, still interested in love. His attraction to women – variously represented as angels or vampires - and jealousy, are recurring themes in his work.

However, the Beyeler Foundation wanted to get away from Munch's melancholy image and display his lesser-known side, in which expressiveness, love of nature and enthusiasm for life are all shown in colourful intensity.

"The interpretation of Munch as a depressive artist comes from the post-war period, and has more to do with post-war trauma than with Munch," Buchhart said.

Happier moments

The artist's happier moments can be seen in the canvases depicting the brightness of the south of France or the cooler and more mysterious light of the long Scandinavian summer evenings.

Many of these paintings are from private collections and have not been exhibited in public for many decades, some even for as long as 80 years.

Munch's major works – which depicted sick children, women as vampires, and strong emotions and fears - often courted controversy at the turn of the century.

His earliest critics also decried what they considered to be the ugliness and unfinished qualities of his paintings.

The artist experimented greatly with his materials and canvas surfaces, often pushing the traditional borderlines between different artistic media, such as painting and collage.

He even went as far as deliberately mistreating some of his works, such as putting them outside in the rain or snow. Munch felt this helped him represent a greater range of emotions.

Experts say that the artist's handling of motifs and materials made an important contribution to modern art.

Exhibitionist traits

However, some observers have pointed to exhibitionist traits in the Norwegian's attitude to his art and to a desire to shock.

"There was certainly this aspect to him," says Buchhart. "He was a type of "enfant terrible" and his fame was based on this. His exhibitions were just one scandal after another."

These controversies increased Munch's reputation in Europe and as the interest of the public grew, so did that of the critics.

The Beyeler museum displays about 130 paintings, 80 drawings and prints from every phase of Munch's career. But The Scream, perhaps his most famous work, does not appear in the exhibition.

"We were discussing the possibility of exhibiting it at the time it was stolen," explained Buchhart, referring to the theft of the painting, along with Munch's Madonna, from the Munch Museum in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, in August 2004.

"The fact that is was not available did in a certain way free us from the obligation of showing it and gave us a way of concentrating on the more experimental, colourful and modern sides of Munch."

The paintings have since been recovered, but The Scream was damaged and so is no longer given out on loan. Visitors to the exhibition have to content themselves instead with a lithograph from 1895.


In brief

Edvard Munch – signs of Modern Art, runs at the Beyeler Foundation until July 15, 2007. It is the first major exhibition of Munch (1863-1944) in Switzerland for 20 years and is the largest ever held outside Norway.

Queen Sonia of Norway and Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin attended the opening.

On display are 130 paintings, 80 drawings and prints, which have been loaned by American and European museums, as well as by private collections.

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The exhibition's seven chapters

It begins with Munch's early break with Scandinavian naturalism in works that include The Sick Child, which caused controversy at the time.

Munch's painting experiments during his Berlin years (1892-95), which are presented in the second chapter, include Madonna and Puberty.

The third part deals with his Paris years (1896-97). The years following his travels in Europe and his breakdown (1908) make up the fourth.

Involvement in photography, motion and silent film form the fifth chapter, and his later work (1920-44), featuring the blurring of material and motif, contributes to the sixth.

The final chapters present Munch's late graphic art.

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