Oslo in the works of Edvard Munch

Oslo in Edvard Munch's art

Encounters between Munch's art, Munch's life, and Oslo.

Oslo, or Kristiania as the city was called until 1924, is not a frequent motif in Munch’s art. Still, some of the places in and around Kristania that were important to Munch in different periods of his life also surfaces in his pictures, showing us glimpses of the city as seen by Edvard Munch.

Karl Johan street

Edvard Munch: Evening on Karl Johan Street
Edvard Munch: Evening on Karl Johan Street
Photo: Bergen Kunstmuseum

The upper part of Oslo's main street Karl Johans gate, from Egertorget square towards the royal palace, ties together several places of significance in Munch's life. It was here Munch rented his first studio, right across from the parliament building. A bit further up the street was Grand Café, a popular hangout for artists in the late 1800s. Blomqvist art gallery, where Munch held many of his exhibitions, was located in Karl Johans gate 35 at the time. The same block also hosted the space where Munch showed his magnum opus The frieze of life in 1904.


Munch painted several paintings with this stretch of Karl Johan as the motif. Different weather conditions and seasonal variations yielded different renderings of the street. The Karl Johan paintings are mostly naturalistic, some almost impressionistic, such as Spring Day on Karl Johan Street (main picture above). The anxiety-ridden painting Evening on Karl Johan Street is of a rather different nature, however. This is Karl Johan envisioned and painted by the expressionist Edvard Munch.

The Kristiania fjord

Edvard Munch: Skrik, 1893
Edvard Munch: Skrik, 1893
Photo: Munch-museet/Munch-Ellingsen-gruppen/BONO

Scream is Edvard Munch's most famous motif: An agitated figure in a distorted landscape against a deep red sky. Munch allegedly got the inspiration for this motif during a hike in the hills of Ekeberg. He wrote a text that relates to this episode:


"I was out walking with two friends - the sun began to set - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature."


Scream is mainly an abstraction and an inner landscape, a vision of modern anxiety and alienation. The actual view from Ekebergåsen is, however, recognizable, with the bay of Bjørvika and the point where Akershus fortress is located visible in the background.


Edvard Munch: Train Smoke
Edvard Munch: Train Smoke

Munch also painted more naturalistic and lyric pictures of the inner part of the Kristiania fjord. In the winter of 1900-1901 he resided for a while at Birgitte Hammer's pension in southern Kristiania. The view from his room is captured in the painting Train smoke (1900), an art noveau-like representation of the fjord and some of its many small islands.



Munch left Kristiania in 1889, and lived abroad for several years.  He returned to the Kristiania area in 1916 when he purchased the poperty Ekely, located a bit outside the city proper.


Due to personal conflicts, Munch had come to view Kristiania as “the enemy’s city”, and he lived quite isolated at Ekely. He remained a highly productive artist, however. Ekely is captured in several paintings that document different aspects of Munch’s later years, up until his death in 1944. Among the last ones is Self portrait in the garden, Ekely (1942), showing Munch as an old man in the Ekely gardens.

Edvard Munch: Self portrait in the garden, Ekely (1942)
Edvard Munch: Self portrait in the garden, Ekely (1942)
Photo: Munch-museet


Sources: Frank Høifødt. 2002. Munch in Oslo. Damm; www.munch-museet.no


The bohemians at Grand Café

The Karl Johan institution Grand Café opened in 1874. The cafe quickly became the preferred hangout for a group of artists, thinkers and dilettants who named themselves "The Kristiania bohemians”. The circle comprised naturalist painter Christian Krohg, and writer and bohemian general Hans Jæger. Munch met Jæger in the mid 1880s, and frequented the circle for a few years.


The café’s climate made a strong impression on the young Edvard. Ateism and anti-bourgeois attitudes were dominating. "Free love” was a common mantra, followed by passion, jealousy and betrayals. Munch’s drawing Kristiania Boheme II captures some of the drama at Grand. The fascination for the group’s femme fatale Oda Krohg, dressed in red, is evident both with the artist himself and the gentlemen in the picture.

Boheme II
Photo: Munch-museet/Munch-Ellingsen-gruppen/BONO
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