So Much Longing in So Little Space. The Art of Edvard Munch, By Karl Ove Knausgaard
"Writers must not underestimate the painter’s labor and study, that effort which is so like an effort of thought and which allows us to speak of a language of painting.” This sentence from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty might serve as an epigraph for a new book on the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Merleau-Ponty was deeply engaged in the silent meanings of painting and their relation to the human body and its gestures, meanings that he argued are different from and prior to words.
Knausgaard does not mention Merleau-Ponty, but from the beginning, he wrestles with the mute language of the canvas and the difficulty of translating his experience with it to the page: “Sometimes it is impossible to say why and how a work of art achieves its effect. I can stand in front of a painting and become filled with emotions and thoughts, evidently transmitted by the painting, and yet it is impossible to trace those emotions and thoughts back to it and say, for example, that the sorrow came from the colors, or that the longing came from the brushstrokes, or that the sudden insight that life will end lay in the motif.” The passage may be rephrased as a question: What exactly happens when a person looks at a work of art?
After the preamble, Knausgaard’s essay becomes an elastic exploration of Munch that combines three elements, each of which is freely woven into the text: details about Munch’s life and painting; the writer’s private and public experiences with the art — which include canvases he cares about, giving a speech on the painter, curating an exhibition, “Towards the Forest: Knausgaard on Munch,” at the Munch Museum in Oslo, talking to scholars, artists and a film director with whom he makes a documentary about the work; and finally, philosophical musings about art and literature.
As the daughter of a Norwegian woman and a Norwegian-American man, I cannot remember when I discovered Munch because he was always there. Nearly every art book on the shelves in my childhood house was devoted to the work of one man: Edvard Munch. Rivaled only by Ibsen, and perhaps Hamsun, Munch exists in Norwegian culture as a sign of greatness, and it may be helpful for readers in English to understand this reality as a point of departure. “‘Munch,’” Knausgaard writes, “is a static entity, so great and autocratic that it is barely in contact with anything but itself.” He also notes rightly that “The Scream” has been lost to viewers. He doesn’t say that the canvas is so famous that people around the world may recognize it without knowing Munch painted it, but that is the truth. As with the “Mona Lisa,” whatever it may have meant to those who first saw it, the canvas has been buried under layer upon layer of cultural excrement.
In “So Much Longing in So Little Space” (translated by Ingvild Burkey), Knausgaard’s ambition is to whittle away at the legend to arrive at insights about the genesis of the art itself, and not only Munch’s art, but all art. The painter’s life appears in fragments. The reader is told about Munch’s early losses — the death of his mother when he was 5, and of his beloved sister Sophie when he was 13, the early diagnosis of his sister Laura’s mental illness, the subsequent deaths of his father and brother — but not much about the painter’s own mental collapse in 1908. The influence of Norwegian artists on Munch is included, but there is little about his life in France and Germany and its profound significance on his development. The urgency of Knausgaard’s project lies elsewhere.
To my mind, Knausgaard is best when he is narrating his own pleasures and doubts as a museum curator and in his conversations with others on his subject. His exchanges with Munch aficionados appear in the book as personal accounts or actual transcripts of what was said. The German artist Anselm Kiefer is tight-lipped and critical. The Munch scholar Stian Grogaard is learned and precise. His mordant language acts as a foil to Knausgaard’s more searching, languid prose. Grogaard’s scholarly certitudes about Munch are countered by the Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird, who declares a painting Grogaard praised highly “embarrassing” and demolishes one art piety after another with an invigorating demotic sharpness. Knausgaard’s response to the varying opinions of those he encounters is at once measured, insightful and tinged with comedy.
He has walked into the land of the experts and visual artists and is afraid of looking like an “idiot” when the exhibition is mounted. His analysis of his own feelings is bracing: “The spineless fear which a couple of critical voices produced within me, can perhaps serve as an indicator of the power of social mechanisms, how they force everything into the channel of consensus, and what it must cost not just to oppose them, but to work within them … as an artist, what forces are present even before one picks up the brush.” The “channel of consensus” forged by invisible social mechanisms, what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called habitus — gestures, perceptions and thoughts so deeply embodied in us they come to seem natural — is formidable.
And it is after this thought that Knausgaard moves into a poetic meditation on how art belongs to ordinary life, with potato peelings in the sink and cats running across a lawn and children shouting at one another “somewhere in the house,” which culminates in an eruption: “And the breakdown which ‘The Scream’ represents,” he writes, “is just terrible, terrible.” I am convinced that the writing of this passage and the associative movements of memory made it possible for Knausgaard to see “The Scream” in its naked form — as terror. The writer enacts on the page exactly what he hopes to convey. Art can sometimes break through the blinding conventions that dictate our perceptions.