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In Oslo, Where Munch's Iconic "Scream" Will Never Fade Away

Ice statues of Munch's "Scream" in Oslo's main street
Ice statues of Munch's "Scream" in Oslo's main street
Dominique de La Tour

OSLO – Before we even begin, it’s not pronounced “munch,” “mench” or even “manch” – it’s “moonk!” It’s a question of politeness, and also the locals are more likely to understand us if we pronounce his name correctly.

In Olso, the artist is everywhere, just like his iconic masterpiece. Just like a spoiled child, Skrik, aka The Scream, shouts from every corner of the city. Warhol colorized it. It was even made into a mask for the Scream horror movie franchise. Tweeted, posted, Skyped, flash-coded from design galleries to gift shops, from mugs to sex dolls, the Mona Lisa of expressionism is an icon of both psychiatry and humor. A blacksmith uses it to remind his employees to wear earplugs and in a hotel room, its panicked face illustrates the “In Case of Fire” sign. We are talking about the most expensive piece of art in the world – in May 2012, Sotheby’s sold one of its 22 copies for $119,922,600.

On the cliff, in this southern suburb, the wooden guardrail has been replaced by iron. The Scream is set on this road: “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,” wrote Munch in a poem. During the solstices and white nights, it’s not uncommon to see the same heavy skies, with Oslo surrounded by fjords and further out, the Bygdoy peninsula, where the Norwegian maritime treasures are kept: three Viking ships, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft, and Antarctic explorer Roal Admunsen’s fishing vessel, Gjoa.

Quayside, Oslo is more of a land city. Its red fortress does not impose – it is deeply rooted in the ground like a molar in an artillery-ridden gum. With its subway and its trams, Oslo’s town center is not very big. Perfect for a quick visit under the fleeting winter sun: there is the cathedral, pretty as a lantern, the sandstone arcades, the classy wooden docks of the Aker Brygge and the stylish Karl-Johan street, looking sharp between the train station, the parliament’s white drum, the national theater or the uncomplicated royal palace.

At its foot there is the university. The gigantic concert hall bears Munch’s frescos, including his famous Sun. But in this relaxed city, the main art is sculpture. In front of the city hall’s backless chair, statues stand, sit or lie or rise – some flattened on the walls as limestone or bronze bas-relief, celebrating under the low sky.

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In Oslo, Munch is everywhere - Photo: Frankieb

The parliament’s two lions tell an interesting story. Two convicts had torn a woman to pieces. A sculptor put his trust into the two men’s skilled hands and asked them to carve two granite lions. The result was so beautiful that the members of parliament petitioned for amnesty on behalf of the men.

“Paint it yourself!”

The National Gallery of Norway doesn’t reflect the discreet context in which Munch thrived. Their Norwegian art collection – which was quite limited – was enriched by a Renoir, a Van Gogh and some Emil Nolde. Munch has his own room. The Scream is accompanied by the unbridled heroines of the Ashes and his Madonna, both erotically cadaveric. Redheads in agony, messy bed sheets not for sex but for a funeral, all of his paintings scream the death of the mother and sister – even though he was a military doctor, the father couldn’t do anything about the scourge of those times, tuberculosis.

Edvard Munch was not born in Oslo, but 100-kilometers north of the city, in a farm near Loten, which isn’t open to the public. Did he even grow up in the capital, when the city was still called Kristiana? The decor of those dark times was the brick and yellow facades and from the Grunerlokka neighborhood. Trendy jewelry stores, Eritrean restaurants, organic hairdressers – an exotic sample of India and Ethiopia for hipsters. Between1864 and 1889, when Munch left for Paris and then Berlin to find glory, he lived in five different places in this city. Thorvald Meyers gate, Olaf Ryes Plass, Fossveien, Schous Plass and of course, Vas Frelsers Gravlund, his final resting place.

But the real monument of Grunerlokka is Freia. The chocolate factory arouses the olfactory sense with its sugary fumes. A laughing guide leads you to the dining hall. Employees eat their lunch under the watchful eye of fishermen, pick-nickers, and gardeners – all painted by Munch. In 1922, Holst, the factory’s fatherly CEO decided to bring art into the dining hall. Munch asked for 80,000 crowns ($4 million dollars) to paint a 12-piece mural. Unfortunately, the result was quite unappealing – blank expressions that had a tendency to put the factory’s workers off their food. Holst called Munch back and asked him to add mouths and eyes. He agreed under one condition – the CEO’s car would come to pick him up every day. A few days in, the car failed to pick him up. Munch rushed to Holst’s office, threw his paint palette on the desk. “I can’t even rely on your car, so paint it yourself!” The mural remains unfinished.

Freia’s twelve scenes show everyday scenes from the resort of Asgardstrand, 50 kilometers south of Oslo. This is where the Vikings thought paradise was. Munch bought a little house from a fisherman, and lived here for a while. It is open to the public and has been kept exactly as it was when the artist lived there.

Jan 1944, Norwegian resistance fighters bomb the port of Olso. Windows are shattered, Munch dies from the cold. He didn’t like to sell his paintings and kept the best for himself – the state inherited 1100 paintings, 3000 drawings and 20,000 engravings.

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Photo of a woman working at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

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