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 be unable to trace those emotions and thoughts back to it and say, for example, that the sorrow came from the colours, or that the longing came from the brushstrokes, or that the sudden insight that life will end lay in the motif.
One picture I feel this way about was painted by Edvard Munch in 1915. It depicts a cabbage field. The cabbages in the foreground are roughly executed, almost sketch-like, dissolving into green and blue brushstrokes deeper into the background. Next to the cabbage field there is an area of yellow, over that an area of dark green, and over that again a narrow band of darkening sky.
That is all, that is the whole painting. But the picture is magical. It is so charged with meaning, looking at it I feel as if something is bursting within me. And yet it is just a field of cabbages.
So what is going on with this painting?
When I look at its colours and shapes, which are so radically simplified that they suggest a landscape more than they represent it, I see death, as if the painting intended a reconciliation with death, but a trace of something terrible remains, and what is terrible is the unknown, that we don't know what awaits us.
Munch's painting doesn't really say anything, doesn't give form to anything other than cabbages, grain, trees and sky. And yet death, and yet reconciliation, and yet peace, and yet a trace of something terrible.
Is it simply that the line of the field leads inwards, towards darkness, and that dusk is descending in the sky above? Perhaps. But many have painted fields, many have painted dusk, without attaining what this painting so calmly radiates.
Munch was around 50 years old when he painted Cabbage Field. He was known as a painter of the inner life, of dream, death and sexuality. He had gone through a crisis, after which he withdrew from social life, and he no longer sought out pain when he painted - he turned outwards, he painted the sun. And that isn't hard to understand: everything begins anew when the sun rises. Darkness yields, the day opens up, the world once again becomes visible. Over the next 30 years he painted what he saw there, in the visible world. But the visible world is not objective reality, it appears to each individual as seen by them, and Munch's great gift lay in his ability to paint not only what his gaze took in, but also what that gaze was charged with.
There is a longing in this painting of the cabbage field, a longing to disappear and become one with the world. And that longing fulfilled the painting for him, fulfilled for him the act of painting. That is why this painting is so good. What disappears re-emerges in what comes into being, and if the disappearance ceased for the painter as soon as he finished the painting, it is still represented in the picture, which fills us again and again with its emptiness.
Cabbages. Grain and forest.
Yellow and green, blue and orange.
Munch painted all his life, from his teenage years in Oslo, when he produced small pictures of potted plants, family members and interiors, until he died at his estate at Ekely, 80 years old. The works he is now remembered for date almost exclusively to a particular period, some 10 to 15 paintings from 1892 to around the turn of the century, so familiar by now that they have become emblems of themselves and therefore almost impossible to see as anything other than that. These are the works we think of as "Munchian": the style refers to Munch, and Munchian refers to the style, in a circular movement that closes the paintings off to the viewer, shutting us out. That movement belongs to modernity, the age of reproduction; along with Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Monet's water-lily ponds, Picasso's Guernica and Matisse's dancing women, Munch's The Scream, from 1893 is perhaps the most iconic image of our time. This means that the picture has invariably already been seen, so it is no longer possible to see it as if for the first time, and since so much of what Munch invested in this painting had to do precisely with alienation, with seeing the world as if for the first time by creating a distance of non-familiarity, it is clear that The Scream is in a sense ruined for us as a work of art.
But Munch as an artist is not ruined. His production was so huge, and so little of it has been exhibited, that it is still possible to approach his pictures with fresh eyes. And by not focusing exclusively on his masterpieces, by not stopping at them but rather seeing them as stations along a more than 60-year long exploration of the world through painting, full of failure, fumbling and banality but also of wildness, audacity and triumph, perhaps The Scream too will come into its own as a work of art, that is to say, be seen as something oscillating between the ridiculous and the fantastic, between the perfected and the unfinished, the beautiful and the ugly, painted in a small town on the world's periphery, at the junction between the old and the new, at the very dawn of the era which would become our own.
I remember well the first time I saw Munch's pictures. It was in Oslo, at the National Gallery. I was in my late teens and up till then had hardly visited a single museum, nor was I particularly interested in art. Music and literature were my thing, but not due to any hunger for understanding. Music was partly a means to define my identity, it said something about who I wanted to be, and partly a place where emotions were given free rein, where all the moods I had within me could be unleashed, without me ever reflecting on it. The relationship was an unconscious one, while literature was primarily an escape from reality, the joy at being able to step into other and unknown worlds.
I don't remember why I was in Oslo, nothing of the context has been preserved in my memory, but presumably it was on a trip with my class. What I remember are all the national romantic paintings, that I was delighted with them and impressed by how true they were to nature. And then I remember how the room with Munch's paintings knocked them out. That Munch's paintings had such a powerful aura that they overshadowed all the others. It was as if they existed on another, higher plane.
While the preceding paintings had opened up to me and, as it were, received my gaze, with Munch's paintings it was the other way round, it was as if they came towards me, that they were active while my gaze was passive. That kind of intensity, that a picture could take possession of a room and dominate it, was something I hadn't experienced before.
They were trembling!
As a person Munch was emotional, nervous and self-absorbed, and as an artist he was lucky, in that he was noticed at the very beginning of his career and was helped in ways that fairly quickly locked him into painting, which at first was as much a way of being seen as a way of seeing, and which eventually became a way of life, the only one he knew. He never did anything other than paint, he never held a job, he didn't found a family, and he hardly spent any time on the practical matters of which a life is usually full. So in many ways Munch's life was extreme – extremely monomaniacal, extremely dedicated, extremely solitary.
But it was in no way heroic. It was as much a matter of hiding or fleeing from the world as it was of renouncing security and accepting the cost of creating something unique. Munch may have lacked a basic human quality, that of becoming attached to other people. Reading biographies it becomes clear that he had a great fear of intimacy, and just as clear why: he lost his mother when he was five years old, and he lost his older sister, to whom he was very attached, when he was 13. His father died when Edvard was 25, his younger brother when he was 32, and in a sense he lost even his sister Laura, who became seriously mentally ill at an early age.
If to this series of losses one adds an acute sensitivity and a distant, at times religiously confused, partly kindly and partly brutal father, one ends up with a child, a teenager and a grown man who is so afraid of losing that he deals with it by simply not acquiring. In time, Munch would assiduously avoid places within himself that might prove painful, it became a life strategy. When his mother's sister, who had been almost a mother to him, died towards the end of his life, he didn't attend the funeral but witnessed it from a distance. He stood outside the churchyard wall, looking in.
On Dec 11 2013 I was sitting as I am sitting now, behind my desk, looking out at the snow-covered lawn, the sky above the trees up by the churchyard, while the light slowly began to fade. The next day I was supposed to give a speech to mark the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth.
Only a few hours remained until I had to set off, and I still hadn't written anything I could use in my lecture. The previous weeks had been chaotic, I had been alone with the children, had had to drive here and there, the car had been at the mechanic's, one of the children was having a hard time at school, which had repercussions at home, and the kind but stupid and for me unmanageable dog had a sore on its chest that I hadn't had time to attend to. I was so worn out that I only kept going out of sheer willpower, but when the day – the high point of which was always the journey home from school with the children in the car, across the fields where darkness lay like an ocean and the lights of the tractors that often drove along in the far distance filled me with peace – was over, I would sit up late in the office. I needed time to myself. It felt more important than sleep. I would sit in the chair beneath the lamp, drinking coffee and smoking and looking at the four books I had containing Munch's collected paintings.
There are pictures of more than 1,700 oil paintings in those books, they span more than 65 years, a whole lifetime and two world wars. They begin in a world where the horse and cart were the usual means of transportation and end in a world with aeroplanes, cars, radios, films, cameras, submarines, aircraft carriers and rockets. They begin in a world where paintings reproduce scenes representing reality, rooms where people sit knitting or reading in the light of oil lamps, and end in a world where painting has broken away from its task of representation and become abstract. Dadaism, futurism, surrealism and cubism have all by then briefly been the future, but are already the past. What could I say about Munch's art that would be applicable to all his pictures? What, if anything, was the unifying element?
I thought of a Munch painting I had seen once in Bergen, of a snow-covered landscape in Thüringen. I had been unprepared for it, and my eyes grew moist. I was 19 years old, and the loneliness in the painting seemed infinite.
I assumed the reason Munch had found this landscape worthy of painting (not just once, but a further four times) had to do with the snow, that the snow cover was so thin that the colours beneath shone through it everywhere. A field leads away into the picture. The whiteness is broken up by reddish and brownish stripes. To the left is a field of green, to the right a field of yellow. Beyond the field there is a downward-sloping hill, also reddish, and behind it lies a forest, painted as one continual field of dark green. The sky above is dirty white, almost yellow.
Which is to say practically nothing, for what matters is that the painting is alive. It has a resonance, it oscillates, it is almost like music. This resonance is what the emotions latch on to and what lifts them, as music can lift one's emotions.
The painting blends with the feelings, a harmony arises. But only if one is open to it. If not, the painting is merely a few lines and colours. It was the same thing when Munch stood before this landscape 111 years ago. He was open to it and it began to live within him, the oscillations in the landscape became oscillations in his feelings.
This openness to the world is what I ended up writing about in my speech. For the world is not something in itself, ready to be observed. The world comes into being in our gaze all the time. It isn't, it becomes. It is impossible to live in this becoming, it is impossible to grasp, therefore we have developed a whole range of different ways of managing it. We call it knowledge.
We know that the sky is blue and consists of air, we know that sand is light when it is dry and dark when it is wet. We know that what is far away looks small, while what is close looks big. We know what it is like to climb out of a plane in southern Europe: the air is like a wall of heat.
All the knowledge we have about the world acts like a shield, something we hold up against the world so as not to be overwhelmed by new impressions. It is a practical strategy, and it isn't something we think about, it applies to everyone. We can't just feel, we have to live too.
But this protective mechanism is not the same for everyone. In some people, it is very strong: they are the robust ones. Others hardly have it at all, and to them even a simple thing like travelling, with the flood of new impressions, chaos and unpredictability that entails, can be more than they can handle. And being with many people at the same time is unbearable, the different personalities and the many opposed wills are like a bombardment of the soul. Such people used to be called nervous - their nerves were too sensitive, they were thin-skinned - while nowadays we say that they are highly sensitive or, if they are paralysed by it, that they suffer from anxiety.
There is no doubt that Munch belonged to the latter category. His biographer Rolf Stenersen, who interacted with him over a period of 20 years, writes that Munch found it difficult to be with many people at the same time. He preferred to meet people singly and if possible only people he had known for a long time, and during such encounters he talked incessantly, which Stenersen thought of as another way he had of protecting himself, of shutting the other person out. This of course is the myth of the artist as being extra-delicate and sensitive, nearly unfit for life, but it has become a myth because it is so often the case. It is also relevant to our understanding of what art is, not least in regard to Munch's art and especially the five paintings from Thüringen, for that is the essential thing about them: he stands there unprotected against the unique aura of the place, and it arises within him. He paints his encounter with the landscape, and the note it gives rise to within him, he awakens in us.
What is admirable about the late Munch is that he succeeded in breaking down all notions of his own greatness as he worked, so that in every picture he began anew, from scratch. One of the last pictures he painted was Painter by the Wall, which dates from 1942, and depicts a man standing on a ladder painting the wall of a house. It has nothing to do with Munch's inner life, it is a scene of everyday life that just happens to occur where he is, and which he paints.
He doesn't even paint it particularly well, but quickly and carelessly. The painter's body is hardly more than a couple of brushstrokes, and the background just a little hastily raked-up green signifying grass and shrubs and some yellow and red-brown shapes indicating flowers. In the background there is a red barn, which lends depth to the picture and draws the viewer in, in the simplest way imaginable.
We can't get much further from the distorted fearful face and the mood dominating his most famous painting, The Scream. There is no doubt about what The Scream expresses, nor that it is a painting of the highest order. But a house painter on a ladder one fine day in the garden?
The impressionists elevated motifs such as this by capturing the moment in all its fullness and in that way tying the familiar and the everyday, that with which we are most intimate, to what lies just beyond the everyday and which one can sense on a summer day: that in the world which doesn't care about us, which doesn't care about anything, which merely exists always - the eternal. There is nothing eternal about Munch's painter as he stands there on the ladder with a body made up of a couple of brushstrokes of white and beige, no eternity in the garden around him or in the barely glimpsed sky. No inner meaning, nor any meaning extracted from the external world - just a carelessly rendered scene of everyday life, verging on the insignificant in every direction.
Is this where 64 years of experience as a painter had brought him?
In a certain sense it was. Munch knew perfectly well how to paint a man on a ladder in a way that was photographic, realistic and anatomically correct - the studies he drew of the human body as a young man in Paris are technically perfect - he also knew well how to paint a man in a garden on a summer day impressionistically, and he presumably also knew how to paint the man on the ladder in a Munchian way. When he chose not to, it was because none of those techniques would help him accomplish what he was after. On the contrary, they would stand in his way.
But what was he after?
It can't have been much. It wasn't to create great art, it wasn't to paint a masterpiece, it was simply to capture the essence of this little scene. The essence of the house painter, which is the vertical arc of the body ending in the lifted hand holding the brush, the essence of the ladder, which is the slightly rickety horizontal steps, the essence of the flowers and the grass, which is their yellow and green colour. Munch must have been happy seeing the painter standing there, and he must have been happy painting him, for that is what the painting expresses, joy at the scene unfolding.
There is something slightly humorous about the picture too, the small and crookedly set up ladder, the man's arm far above his head. When we know that Munch was 78 years old when he painted it and was considered to be beyond doubt his country's greatest artist, to many the very emblem of The Artist, it is difficult not to see the picture as an ironic comment on his own life's work. The man on the ladder is painting a house, Munch is painting a picture - what difference is there, really?
Munch painted a self-portrait at about the same time, one of his best-known pictures, entitled Between the Clock and the Bed. It is unlike almost all his other self-portraits in that he depicts himself humbly, as a humble man. He is standing between a clock with no hands and a bed, in front of a wall hung with pictures, of which some are recognisable as his own. His hands are down by his sides, in a neutral position verging on the subservient or self-effacing. It says, Here I am as I really am. His facial expression is also neutral, conveying neither affect nor inner drama. His gaze, which has been so central to his work and his position in the world, isn't visible, his eyes are almost entirely in shadow. It is as if he has positioned himself in front of us and in doing so is saying that this is all there is, this is me, neither more nor less.
Oh, how different it is from the self-portrait he made at the age of 19, which is so haughty! But also different from another late self-portrait, in which he is sitting in a chair with a blanket over his legs and turning his head towards us in a movement that is almost a snarl, odd because he is both exhibiting himself and guarding himself in one and the same motion. The man between the clock and the bed isn't guarding himself, he is just standing there, very erect in his bedroom, dressed in a suit and shirt, as if to answer to death, which is evidently waiting just around the corner. Maybe it wasn't much, he seems to be saying, but it was still something! And there is plenty you don't know about me.
So Much Longing in So Little Space by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr Ingvild Burkey) is published by Harvill Secker. Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is at the British Museum (020 7323 8000) from April 11