The Art of Unleashing Emotions

Words by Veronica Mike Solheim
Portraits by Luca Sørheim / mon Dieu

Our experience of art is hard to describe, and often linked to our inner selves. We draw parallels,  look for things we recognise. But it can also be completely abstract, radiating strong emotions, such as chaos or sorrow, or love. Acclaimed author Karl Ove Knausgård experienced this when he dived into the endless amount of work by world famous artist Edvard Munch. Knausgård, recognised for his ability to put indescribable emotions into words, says he admires Munch for the emotion manifested in his works, that he too is hoping to one day be able to enter this dark room of unresolved thoughts and emotions.

I’ve just had a tour of the summer exhibition at The Munch Museum in Oslo. Even though I feel a decent connection to Edvard Munch (like all Norwegians), there is no doubt that I am here because of the rare event of Karl Ove Knausgård, the man who wrote the controversial and self-revelatory book series Min Kamp (My Struggle) 1-6 (2009-11), curating his very first exhibition. I’m curious about the combination of the two.

It all started in 2013, 150 years after Edvard Munch was born. At the celebration, Karl Ove Knausgård gave a speech so touching that the museum wanted to give him the possibility to dive deeper into Munch’s life and oeuvre. It was the way Knausgård reflected around the wordlessness of art and the emotions laid bare in Munch’s work, that the museum found intriguing. Four years later the exhibition became a reality. The book, Towards the Forest—Knausgård on Munch, contains more than a hundred paintings, several sculptures and graphic prints, some of it never exhibited before. Together with Kari J. Brandtzæg, curator at The Munch Museum, Knausgård scoured the storage rooms, on the lookout for something that could make us see and experience Edvard Munch’s art in a different way.

In the foyer, after the tour, Karl Ove Knausgård tells me that he first experienced Edvard Munch as a teenager, at the traditional school excursion to the museum. Although he already knew who he was, this was the moment he truly discovered Munch and the power of his paintings.

"I didn’t experience art as a child. I never went to the museums. It wasn’t until I grew older that I gained a very close and emotional relationship to visual arts," Knausgård says. 

I’ve heard in interviews that art easily makes him cry, and wonder if he has thoughts on why.

"It’s hard to describe, it’s a pure feeling and intuition. It awakens me. It unleashes emotions kept inside of me, feelings I’m not allowing myself to have. That’s why I experience art in such a strong way. And it’s been like that with Munch a few times."

The exhibition takes the viewer on a journey. From harmony—a room filled with light and motifs of people in parks and gardens, through a room full of darkness and chaos; showing how Munch cultivated roughness in his often incomplete or scattered work—to a controllable reality, a room crammed with portraits, telling the story of how Munch’s art deals with his relationship to others. 

It’s not just through the exhibition itself that we get a glimpse of Knausgård’s emotional relationship to Munch’s art. He describes several of the paintings in the exhibition catalogue,  with an attempt to truly understand Munch’s paintings, what was at stake and how they can continue to be a part of our culture. Knausgård also wrote a book on the subject—Så mye lengsel på så liten flate (So much longing on such a small surface).

How do you read longing into Edvard Munch’s paintings?
I see longing in almost every painting. Perhaps I read so much of myself into them, but I don’t think so. I think Munch was a very closed person, who could open up through art. That’s when and where he opened up to the world. Even in the most harmonious paintings, it’s like he is not a part of it. He stands on the outside, looking in.

As some sort of emptiness?

What do you see?
I don’t know. But there is always a hint of something else with Munch, even in the most idyllic paintings. Like in Bathing Boys (1897-98). It is actually a whimsical painting, with the limbs under water, etc. But at the same time, one of the boys is standing there, wrapped in seriousness.

Bathing Boys (1897-98)  ©Munchmuseet

Bathing Boys (1897-98) ©Munchmuseet

In the exhibition catalogue, Knausgård describes, in his own words, some of Munch's paintings, and therefore also Munch’s life. A section about ‘the others’ reads as follows:

The very first masterpiece Munch painted was a portrait of his sister Inger; it is called 'Inger Munch in Black' and was made in 1884, when Munch was twenty years old. For the first time, he succeeded in articulating what he felt about a motif in painting, and not just what he saw. Or rather, he arrived at a point where he did not paint what he had learned to see, but what he actually saw. In that gaze resided an emotion, and in that emotion his sister emerged, her grief and her dignity. I believe he learned something then, where he had to go in order for the pictures to not only be technically accomplished, even brilliant, but also truthful—that the truth has nothing to do with technical skill or brilliance.

Knausgård’s focus on Munch’s relations with others is truly interesting, as relationships clearly are a huge part of Knausgård’s own work as well. The first volume of My Struggle opens with a staggering description of death, before it takes you through Karl Ove Knausgård’s struggle to master life, himself and his relationships with the people around him. 

Paul Binding at the Times Literary Supplement said in his review that «Knausgård belongs to a readily recognisable Norwegian tradition—Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Edvard Munch, Tarjei Vesaas, Per Petterson—in his ability to achieve honest and unrestricted focus on naked and personal experience..» 

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Knausgård would recognise the similarities—if this might be why he feels such a strong connection to Munch’s art.

"I don’t think we’re the same, but I feel something when I see his paintings. I don’t know who he was as a person. I know that he didn’t trust people, he didn’t dare to enter into new relationships. He was too afraid of loss. Not consciously, but as a basic feature. And he had his struggles. From what I’ve learned, he wasn’t happy. I can recognise that in myself. And he found joy through painting, which is similar to myself and my writing. But I think this is the case with most creatives and artists—something has been destroyed and we are creating in an attempt to figure it out." 

Woman with Poppies, 1918-19 ©Munchmuseet

Woman with Poppies, 1918-19 ©Munchmuseet

Do you think this darkness, so to say, is what attracts people? 
I think it’s a part of everyone, but I think there’s a lot we choose not to take in. Art sort of highlights it, gives it a place. A lot of what is hidden in ourselves can be discovered at an art exhibition. Suddenly it’s right there. Thoughts and emotions that don’t come up when you’re at work, with your children or on the metro. 

Do you think Munch used art as an escape from reality? 
Yes, definitely. Munch painted every day. 

How much Knausgård is there in this exhibition? 
That’s a good question. Since I’ve selected the works on intuition, I’ve made my choices based on my own longing and my own feelings. It has something to do with awakened emotions, that’s what I’ve been looking for. The journey in the exhibition, from the inside, to the outside, to the inside— is also my own journey. I look for things in Munch’s work that I can identify with. 

Have you gained any important knowledge about Munch or even yourself during the process?
Not about myself, but I’ve learned a lot about Munch. I’ve seen his paintings many times, always discovering something new. However, what I do want to bring along, in terms of my own writing, is the power in his expressions. I have to go in there, into that space; that’s where it happens. 

Do you think anyone ever experience getting there? Do you think you’re able to get there?
In glimpses. But nothing of what I’ve written so far is there. Munch, he was there pretty early. 

Do you think he experienced it like that himself? 
Yes, I think he did. I think it was a big breakthrough for him when he painted The Scream (1893), which is an extremely releasing painting. 

You’ve also had a big breakthrough and success.
I know, but we’re not talking about it in that sense, we’re talking about the relationship to what we create. And I think The Scream was one of those moments. I think he painted it quickly, that he was there and that he knew he was in a good place. Afterwards he left it. He didn’t see a future there, which I think bothered him. That was the painting people talked about; in many ways The Scream was Munch, although he continued to paint for forty more years. 

Why do you want to get there? To this dark space?
Because… I want to create something from the core of what it is to be human. A place where it’s about life and death. Where everything’s at stake.

The time is up, several journalists are waiting to get a few words with the author. As soon as I leave the table, I immediately regret that I didn’t contradict him. Because even though most people (at least the ones who’ve read his work) describe Karl Ove Knausgård’s work as emotionally redemptive and raw, the author himself thinks he has a long way to go—that he wants to go further, deeper. The urge to create sustains. Just like it did with Munch. As Knausgård said, Edvard Munch continued to paint for forty years after The Scream. Would he if he had reached the core? Or did he because he was longing to get there?

Painter by the wall, 1942 ©Munchmuseet

Painter by the wall, 1942 ©Munchmuseet

First published in Volume Eleven