Nick Trend follows the paths of celebrated Oslo artist Edvard Munch amid the landscapes that inspired his melancholy works.
I am standing in front of a rather swish restaurant at Ekeberg, a high bluff on the outskirts of Oslo, looking west towards the sunset. In the distance is the city centre with its new, brilliant-white waterside opera house catching the late evening light and appearing to sink like the bridge of a half-submerged ship into the dark water of the Oslofjord.
I am hoping for a fiery sunset - something to conjure more drama from such a serene prospect. For it was here in 1892 that Edvard Munch walked along the path with friends. "The sun was setting. 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 infinite scream passing through nature," Munch later described the event.
That scream became The Scream, and if Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile is the image most emblematic of Renaissance self-confidence, Munch's portrait (or is it a self-portrait?) of a contorted, hollow-mouthed, skull-like figure has come to symbolise agonised uncertainty in a godless, modern world.
The next day, standing in front of that first, original version of The Scream, exhibited at the Munch Museum (Munch created four copies; three are housed in Oslo), I realise I may have been misreading the work. Is the scream of the title coming from the open-mouthed figure in the foreground, as I have always assumed? Or is he instead blocking his ears to blot out an inhuman shriek coming from elsewhere? That seems to be what Munch implies in his diary: "It seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked."
The Munch Museum exhibits another great painting with key ambiguities, too: Starry Night shows a distant view of Oslo, probably the view from the top of the steps at Munch's studio on a hill in Ekeley, to the west of the city. In the foreground is a snow-laden landscape, with the city lights and another glimpse of the Oslofjord beyond. This time the sky is purple-green, flecked with a scattering of rather dim stars.
It seems a seductive account of one of those beautiful, still, luminous winter nights of the north. But look for longer and you notice a shadow stretching out across the snow. The museum's notes on the painting interpret the shadow as Munch's own and suggest the painting is a melancholic reflection on mortality. Perhaps it is the dark, quiet night after the lurid sunset of The Scream.
It is also likely to be a response to Norwegian playwright and theatre director Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, the story of a corrupt banker who, at the end of the play, walks out into the snow to die. If so, it's a reminder of the close cultural links between Munch and Ibsen who, along with composer and pianist Edvard Grieg - and remarkably for such a small country - had such an enormous influence on wider European culture at the end of the 19th century.
Many of Munch's paintings refer to scenes in Ibsen's plays, and a Munch portrait of the playwright was used on the playbill at the Paris premiere of John Gabriel Borkman. More famous, and also at the Munch Museum, is his 1898 portrait, Ibsen at the Grand Cafe, which captures the grey mane and lowering eyes of the writer and director in his favourite seat.
The Grand Cafe in the Grand Hotel in Oslo's central avenue, the Karl Johans Gate, was and still is at the social and cultural heart of the city. Having spent many years in Italy and Germany, Ibsen and Munch were both habitues in the 1890s; Munch was staying there and Ibsen went in each day. They weren't soulmates but they were on good terms, until one evening the painter was approached about his bill by a waiter. There are various versions of what happened next, but it seems that Munch did not have enough money on him and he gestured towards Ibsen, who was sitting at another table, suggesting that he would vouch for his good credit. Instead, Ibsen appears to have settled the bill and, in doing so, offended Munch. "Well, Ibsen, we will not be seeing each other again," he said - and they never did.
Finnair has a fare to Oslo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1760 low-season return, including tax. Fly with a partner airline to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Helsinki (12hr 30min) and to Oslo (1hr 30min); see finnair.com. This fare allows you to fly via other Asian cities and back from another European city.
The Munch Museum holds key works and thousands of artefacts. See munch.museum.no.
- Telegraph, London