Death and Dying in Oslo: Edvard Munch’s Between the Clock and the Bed in Retrospect

by Gregory Peter Fewster

OSLO – With ruddy cheeks and bald pate, an elderly Edward Munch stands straight and tall between a similarly-erect grandfather clock and a small bed, made up with bedspread of angular red and grey stripes. Perhaps best-known for “The Scream,” Munch’s “Between the Clock and the Bed” (Norwegian: Mellom klokken og Sengen) titles this final painting – a self-portrait – of the Norwegian artist’s sixty-year long career. It also names a recent exhibition of his works hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and finally Oslo’s Munch Museet, an exhibition that sought to explore this intriguing artist’s lengthy career and his ability to express rich and complex emotions within a single painting.

The Munch Museet is a relatively small museum, but the five rooms of its main gallery comfortably held the thirty-eight works on display here. In all but the first of these rooms, gallery visitors were greeted by heaving oblong or round structures, commissioned by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural firm, which allowed numerous vantage points from which to view the works. Wide and long, they also created a rhythm to exhibit, guiding viewers around their bulk from one painting to the next.

at the deathbed

At the Deathbed, 1895, Bergen Kunstmuseum

Exposed to the grim realities of sickness and death from a young age, Munch frequently returned to these themes in his paintings. They feature prominently, among others, in Between the Clock and the Bed. In one of his many self-portraits, Munch depicts himself sitting on a chair, not standing, as he was in the four other self-portraits hung nearby. Dressed in a thick, dark dressing gown with a blanket draped over his knees, the unmade bed in the background suggests a limited vitality made explicit in the painting’s title “Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu” (1919).

Like the epidemics Munch so feared, illness abounded through each of the remaining gallery rooms. Two works, painted twenty years apart, showcase Munch’s tendency to revisit a scene and thus recreate it. In “At the Deathbed” of 1895, thick blocks of colour – deep reds and dark greys – contrast the pale sheets of the death bed and the ghostlike faces of mourning family members of the deceased. With Munch’s revisioning of this scene in “Death Struggle,” deep red walls are replaced with red and orange splotches on a pale ground, pockmarked and disorienting. Brushstrokes are much more evident than before, but give the effect of a feverish dream. It surely is not the deceased who struggles with death here, but the one who looks in on the scene.


Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919

Other paintings likewise show the communality of death and dying, from visitors to a deathbed, covering their noses in “The Smell of Death” to the nude murderess Charlotte Corday standing over the lifeless corpse of Jean-Paul Marat in “The Death of Marat.” But none are so haunting as “Inheritance.” With thick brushstrokes and mats of dark colour reminiscent of “At the Deathbed,” a seated woman – a mother – fills the length of the canvas. With white handkerchief to her mouth, the mother suppresses a cough in an act of tragic futility, as flecks of blood cover her spectral and alien-like infant resting naked on her lap. Such a gruesome inheritance speaks to the tuberculosis that took Munch’s mother and sister that he feared also for himself.


The Death of Marat II

Munch expressed little joy in his works, and they are not likely to evoke much of the same in viewers. But his emotive style, blurred and heavy at times or bright and vivid at others, draw the viewer into very human realities. Death and dying are solitary indeed, but these works remind us that they are shared as well. It is easy to get lost in these works as they prompt contemplation and the imagination of a time and place where death was more present and the risk of deadly infection an ever-present concern. To emerge from the Munch Museet into the crisp and enlivening Norwegian air provides a foil for these themes all the more.

Sadly, Between the Clock and the Bed closed early in the fall of 2018. But anyone intrigued by the expressive themes of Munch’s painting can visit the Munch Museet in Oslo, Norway, where the majority of these works are housed. 2019 will be the final year of the present museum, with a new and larger facility set to open in 2020. Its fourteen floors promise stunning views of Munch’s paintings on one side, and Oslo’s beautiful fjord on the other. Several other paintings from Between the Clock and the Bed are held at Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design as well as other galleries throughout Scandinavia.

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