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Photo: Bård Gundersen
Travel Trade

Edvard Munch and Peer Gynt

Munch was the painter of moments, moments charged with feelings and meaning, the same sort of moments that theatre creates for its audience.

The moment when Peer Gynt lays in the grass and lets the skies become a crowd that follows himself, the emperor. The moment when Peer seduces Ingrid and flees from the wedding at Hegstad. The moment when Peer runs in fear from the men that wanted to take him after he stole the bride; mother Åse's death; Anitra's dance; and last but not least, the meet between all of these women, Mother Åse, Ingrid, Solveig, the woman in green, Anitra...

The artist Edvard Munch

Munch was four years old when Peer Gynt was written. He grew up and developed as an artist in a time influenced by Ibsen's literature and theatre plays.

But what kind of artist was Munch himself, and what did he want with his pictures? As literature was for Ibsen, the pictures for Munch were anexploration of the human and mind. For him, the human mind projects who we are through how we look at the world. Our anxiety and fear will afflict how we see the world around us. This is why the details in a painting are not important; it is about the mood that the viewer experiences when seeing the picture. And these moods belong to the moment. But the moment is temporary, and painting it takes time, so what Munch does is to paint the moment as he recalls it. He would often take out these recalled moments over and over again to use it in different ways. This is how he works, and it is also characteristic for his most famous paintings.

Theatre can create intense moments like this, because the experience is there, now, throughout a play, and ends when the curtains go down and the audience applauds. What we are left with after a theatre play are just memories, hopefully by something that made an impression on us. Perhaps its not that strange that theatre would inspire Munch to paint his pictures. But what he painted, drew or graphically portrayed, always had to touch something, a feeling, in him. Its obvious that many scenes from Ibsen's play were like this for him. He depicted situations and happenings from many of Ibsen's plays, among others "The Pretenders", "Ghosts", "Hedda Gabler", "John Gabriel Borkman" and "When We Dead Awaken" - and of course, "Peer Gynt".

Inspiration from Peer Gynt

Munch made several sketches and drawings of persons and scenes from Peer Gynt, most of them fairly old, from the period 1906-1930. Many of them are loose sketches and fast lines of various qualities.

Already in 1896 Munch got an assignment to draw the program poster for the production of Peer Gynt at Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris (1896). The motif he chose for the drawings were two women from the play; Solveig seen from behind on the side, and mother Aase with an almost intrusively close and weary face. Solveig looks inward in the picture towards a landscape of steep, snow-covered mountains, and with a little church that indicates a village.

This is not a coincidental motif, with these two women, Munch finds a theme he returns to again and again. It's especially visible in "Two women at the beach" (1898). Here, the old woman is dressed in black, and the mountains are replaced with ocean.

The young woman with the blond long hair, usually turned away, we also find several places in Munch's art at the same time, for example in "Detachment I and II "(1896) and "Young woman on the shore" (1896). This could be pictures of Munch's deceased sister Sophie, the same girl as depicted dying in the "The Sick Child", and which Much grieved over throughout his life. It could look like the Solveig character in Peer Gynt awakens the Sophie-character in Munch's mind.

Another important theme in Munch's drawings from Peer Gynt is Mother Åse's death. We can imagine that Peer with his fantasy and poetic talent that met his mother that he had left in poverty in his childhood home, also was recognizable for Munch himself.

There are also several drawings of Anitra's dance, some soft lines after the model Ingeborg Kaurin from 1911-15, and a couple from 1830, which are more bold and undressed.

Often Munch would draw his own face in to the Peer Gynt characters; he is Peer in the play, and recognizes himself in the different situations, which the play has so many off.


"Peer Gynt" by lake Gålåvatnet

Ibsen and Munch

Munch also painted portraits of Ibsen himself. Ibsen was 35 years older, and was an international celebrity at the time that Munch was establishing himself as an artist. They did not know each other personally. It is, however, known thatIbsen had sympathy for Munch, and supported him through a critical period of his career.

Norwegian press and audience ridiculed Munch, and he had been a scandal in Berlin. Ibsen did a simple gest, and broke his regular habit for a moment and sat down at Munch's table on Grand Café, exchanged a few pleasant words before he left, and this did indelible impression on Munch.

Even more important was the meeting in Munch's exhibition at Blomquist on Karl Johan Street in 1895, with among others many of Munch's "Frieze of Life" pictures. The exhibition was taken by storm in the Norwegian papers, and in "Studentersamfundet" the doctor Johan Scharffenberg stated that Munch was mentally ill. Ibsen then chose to visit the exhibition, a visit that even was reported in French papers. He was shown around by Munch, took his time and showed interest and sympathy. It's also said that he told Munch: "It interests me a lot, believe me, it will be with you as with me, the more enemies the more friends."

Written by Hans Herlof Grelland to the Peer Gynt festival in 2014.

Experience the connection

Visit the Munch museum in Oslo during the Peer Gynt festival to experience Munch's paintings. Continue to the theatre play "Peer Gynt" at Gålå in the Gudbrandsdalen valley to see the theatre play that inspired many of his paintings.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen