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Why Munch Painted

Karl Ove Knausgaard—

I knew why Munch painted, I knew it so well that I could articulate it with a single sentence. And it resembles the sentence spoken by the author with his sweater tucked into his trousers.

I write because I am going to die. 

I paint because I have lost trust in the world. 

I still believe it is true, in a way; when I read about Munch’s life and look at his paintings, it fits, in the way truths fit, intuitively and incontrovertibly: that’s how it was. But on the other hand: exactly when was it like that? Everyone who has attempted to paint knows that it is a painstaking and complicated process, governed by a special form of thought, visual and unreflecting, almost like the colors and shapes themselves. It takes many years to acquire enough experience and confidence to be able to express what one wants on the canvas, or at least to minimize the distance between the internal and the external image so that the visual and unreflecting thoughts can move more or less freely between their inner and outer expression. The medium is physical, the picture is an object in the world made up of oil paints and canvas, and if it had been possible to stand next to Edvard Munch on a summer day in for example 1896, while he stood painting outside his house in Aasgaardstrand, for example some girls on a pier with a few houses and trees in the background, it is hard to imagine that he would look up, push his hat back on his head, and say, “I’m really doing this because I have lost trust in the world,” then wipe the sweat off his brow and light a cigarette. “My sister died when I was thirteen, you see. So I don’t have a choice. I have to stand here painting.” 

A sailboat comes so close than one can hear the flapping of the sail and the creaking of the rigging when it becomes taut. The fjord behind him is a blue swell, its color much cooler and deeper than the pale, light sky. 

“Twenty-seven years have passed since then. But my trust has never returned, you see. That’s why I am painting these girls on this bridge. Perhaps they can reestablish my trust? Or at least articulate my loss of trust!” 

Some children are standing a little way off looking at him, as they often do; with his dark suit, his light straw boater, his easel, and his little wooden case of paints, which he either carries around in the dusty streets of the small seaside resort or has in front of him while he stands painting, he is an odd bird in the neighborhood. He has no job, he has never done anything other than this, and he is beautiful, with a large, sensitive mouth and nervous eyes, large, restless hands. At the same time he is arrogant, a self-important and haughty man from a family of famous academics, and he drinks nearly every night, in the pale summer nights which are so quiet that his voice and those of his friends carry a long way in the residential streets and out across the still fjord. Later in life he secludes himself, cuts out friends and lovers, grows tetchy and impossible, an unreasonable old man who, when he meets someone, talks incessantly about everything and nothing, it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise once he gets going. Whereas when he was young, at least during a short ten-year period, he painted scenes from his own life, memories he had, for the remainder of his life he painted what he saw in front of him. Houses, plains, tractors, horses, laborers, trees, people, his own face. He lived a long life, from the middle of the nineteenth century and into the Second World War, and he painted throughout it all. One of his last pictures depicts a housepainter who painted the buildings on his estate, and it is as if he is saying, this is what I too do and have spent my whole life doing, brushing paint onto a surface. But the sun is shining, the house is white, and deep within the green of the garden a red barn wall is glowing. 

Could a lack of trust in the world really have driven him to paint one thousand seven hundred pictures and produce more than twenty thousand prints, could it have been the driving force behind his entire long life with all its victories and defeats? 

If the distance is great enough, the answer is yes—seen from a great distance, a life can be summed up in a single sentence—but as soon as one comes closer to life, it dissolves into an ocean of time, events, things, and people. It is still there, somewhere in the multitude, but it is no longer supreme, for in a life seen at close range there is no organizing principle.

From Inadvertent by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is an award-winning Norwegian author whose autobiographical novel cycle, My Struggle, spans six volumes which have been translated into over fifteen languages. His lecture was given at the 2017 Windham-Campbell prize ceremony.

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