How fitting that a building dedicated to the life and work of Edvard Munch may make you want to scream.
The £235m mega museum of the tormented Norwegian artist stands as an ominous grey tower on the Oslo waterfront, lurching out at the top like a military lookout post, keeping watch over the fjord. It is a location scout’s dream for the ultimate villain’s headquarters, an almost comically menacing structure, bent over the pristine white iceberg of the city’s beloved opera house with a thuggish hunch. It may seem like an apt container for the tortured soul of Munch, whose shadow looms large over the city – but the anxiety-inducing effect wasn’t wholly intentional.
“We wanted to create a welcoming vertical symbol,” says Juan Herreros , the Spanish architect behind the 13-storey complex. “It may be against the local tendency for modesty, but we thought the city needed a statement in a prominent location for this astonishing artist. It creates a new vantage point where people can discover a different view of the landscape.”
More than a decade in the making, and subject to intense political wrangling over its cost, form and location, the museum finally opened on Friday, one of the largest in the world dedicated to a single artist. It is a mighty mall of Munch, a towering stack of 11 galleries connected by zigzagging escalators, crowned with a rooftop restaurant and bar.
“Forget everything you know about museums,” says its director, Stein Olav Henrichsen. “This is totally different.”
The word museum has been dropped for a start. In an attempt to attract new audiences, who may be put off by the m-word, this is just MUNCH. Its punchy all-caps logo is slanted back 20 degrees to match the tilt of the tower, emblazoned across the facade in glowing, full storey-high letters. A promotional video sets the youth-oriented tone, featuring teens skateboarding towards the building, texting each other with scream emojis, on their way to hang out, not just look at paintings. Henrichsen promises that a brimming programme of events and performances will “make this house lively from 10am to 10pm every day”.
They won’t be short of visitors, thanks to global Munch-mania. But the impending crowds seem to have dictated the design: the whole place feels like it has been designed to process the hordes as efficiently as possible. A functional foyer, with shop and cafe, leads through big glass doors to the ranks of escalators and lifts, where visitors are funnelled up between the landings and into the galleries. It is a relentlessly airport-like world of grey floors, grey walls and grey ceilings, with glass balustrades, steel trim and aluminium mesh cladding completing the cold, clinical palette. Seats are placed at the end of these long landings, with monitors adding to the departure lounge vibe, but it is not a place you would care to linger, or wander aimlessly. It feels like a vertical conveyor-belt of art.
“I am of the generation that has consumed too many horizontal museums,” says Herreros, “where there are more people walking around, not knowing where they are going, than actually looking at the paintings.” In contrast to these free-flowing, public space-filled museums, lui dice, which are often more about spectacular architecture than content, “we wanted to make a paradise for curators, where the art is the protagonist.”
He has succeeded in the sense that the galleries themselves are all neutral, rectangular, black-box spaces, designed with a range of different heights, with no architectural whimsy getting in the way. “We are not like Zaha," lui dice, referring to the late Zaha Hadid who designed galleries with impractical angled walls, “killing curators every day”.
The star of the show is indeed not the building but Munch, di chi 26,700 works now enjoy four times the amount of space than at the previous 1960s museum in Tøyen, 2km to the north-east. Five thematic exhibitions introduce the many facets of the artist, from a gallery of his monumental canvases (so big they had to be craned through a hole in the side of the building), to a floor that focuses on his woodcuts, complete with a textured table where you can rub your own Munch relief. Another room shows his early experiments with selfies, made after acquiring a Kodak Brownie camera in 1902, including an arresting photo of himself power-posing in a loin cloth on the beach, paintbrush in hand.
Another escalator ride brings you to a temporary exhibition that pairs the work of Tracey Emin with Munch across two floors (partly shown at the Royal Academy last year). They make for surprisingly good bedfellows, indulging each other’s bed-bound misery with their anguished, smeary canvases. Emin’s filthy bed looks exactly the kind of place Munch would have been at home in, the detritus of used tissues and tampons echoing his habit of leaving his paintings outside in the forest to get covered in muck and bird droppings.
Further windows into his domestic life are provided on a floor that recreates ghostly black scenes from his home and studio, displaying his paintbrushes, palettes and even the breathing equipment he used to alleviate his lifelong lung problems. You may need similar aids if you’re planning to see the entire museum in a day. It’s a feat of endurance, but it creates a rich picture of the artist. As Henrichsen puts it: “We are more than just The Scream.”
It is the fate of that twisted, gaping face – now a global staple of Halloween costumes and emoji keyboards – that they have mainly to thank for their new home. One of The Scream paintings was stolen (and later recovered) from the Tøyen museum in 2004, sparking debate around the need for a more fortified facility. Along with the increased security and climate-controlled galleries, a theatrical trick has been employed to heighten the drama of Munch’s best-known work. The museum has three different versions of The Scream – painting, crayon and lithograph – hung in a dimly lit shrine on the seventh floor, but only one is ever visible. The other two remain hidden behind black doors, each taking its turn to be revealed for an hour at a time. The earliest and most famous version of the painting may belong to the National Museum (reopening in a new home across town next year), “But now we are giving them some competition,” says Henrichsen. They’re certainly upping the gift-shop stakes. You can buy the tormented, quivering face on everything from tote bags and pens to glasses cases, paintboxes and even a diamond-encrusted ring – yours for £17,800.
The Munch marathon ends with an open-air roof terrace, flanked by a penthouse bar and restaurant (sadly not called Munchies), where the building leans out to take in the view of the Bjørvika waterfront. The area has been transformed over the last two decades from a container port to the cultural heart of the city, with the opera house, an astonishing new library and now MUNCH, all flanked by the brash “barcode” development of high-rise offices and hotels behind – with which the museum’s tower was partly designed to compete.
For a space intended to provide panoramic vistas, the roof terrace does a good job of blocking the view, with its layers of chunky steelwork and angled glazing creating the feeling of being hemmed in, trapped in a zone of consumption. Munch was never free from his torments, and neither shall the visitor be. “Without anxiety and illness," scrisse, “I am a ship without a rudder. I want to keep those sufferings.” Little did he know how his trauma would endure – and end up being wrought in a 60 metre-high anxious monolith of aluminium and glass.