The War at Home: Norwegian Critics Rain Fire on Prodigal Son Bjarne Melgaard for Munch Show

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2010.

Bjarne Melgaard, Untitled, 2010.

Bjarne Melgaard’s current show at the Munch Museum in Oslo, “The End of It Has Already Happened,” which pairs the work of Norway’s most celebrated contemporary artist with one of its national icons, has turned into “a huge national scandal gone completely media viral,” in the words of the exhibition’s curator, Lars Toft-Eriksen. Melgaard, something of a celebrity in his native country, has become a beloved, if occasionally controversial artist in the U.S. as well. (His studio is in New York.) He often deals with themes of homoerotism, sexual defilement, race, and a radical personal mythology in his work. One series had assistants create faithful reproductions of covers of publications by NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which Melgaard then painted over. In another, possibly apocryphal project, called AIDS Roulette, he gathered together six gay men, one of whom was HIV positive, then chose one man at random to have unprotected intercourse with.

In his Munch show, the Norwegian press has accused Melgaard of promoting pedophilia and sadomasochism. A vocal group of Norwegian critics–ranging from philistines to museum curators–have called for the show to be censored or shut down entirely.

According to Toft-Eriksen, the swarm of bad press began innocently enough, with “one rather critical review” of the show in the magazine Morgenbladet last week, which concluded the show was “a failed dialogue, but a successful Bjarne Melgaard-circus.” A review in Aftenposten, Norway’s most widely circulated newspaper, said the show was “uncomfortable” but “fantastic.” These innocuous appraisals were soon followed by an opinion piece in Aftenposten by art historian Hilde M.J. Rognerud, who claimed that “Bjarne Melgaard’s sexualized art is violating both the audience and Munch’s artistic project,” further arguing that the city of Oslo should close the exhibition. (Elsewhere in Aftenposten’s opinion pages, an age limit had been suggested.)

Rognerud then appeared on NRK, Norway’s largest broadcasting network, to reiterate these claims alongside Karin Hellandsjø, a former curator at the National Museum of Art in Oslo, who said the pairing of Melgaard’s work with Munch has “stepped over the line ethically.” The negative press snowballed from there.

“It’s a massive problem when the leaders of the country’s biggest museums think it’s okay to put child sex on the walls,” Olav Egil Aune wrote in a piece titled “Hva…???” (“What…???”) in Vårt Land, a conservative publication.

“OVERLOAD!!!” went another headline, written in English.

“I don’t really know where to start to be honest,” Toft-Eriksen said by phone from Oslo. “I knew this exhibition was going to raise some controversy, but the level of it took me by surprise.”

Toft-Eriksen said he has followed Melgaard’s work since the 1990s, and he’d been considering working with the artist for several years, though he “never really wanted to do a standard solo exhibition with him.” He got his chance to spotlight Melgaard once the Munch Museum decided to organize a series of shows putting another artist’s work alongside the institution’s namesake. Melgaard is the first in this series, and his inclusion is designed to “test and challenge” Munch’s artistic legacy, according to Toft-Eriksen. Future shows will include figures like Jasper Johns and Vincent Van Gogh.

“I wanted to explore what Munch’s relevance is today when we put it together with the work of a living artist that is controversial in his time,” Toft-Eriksen said, “just as Munch was controversial in his time.”

Melgaard is not simply a peripheral provocateur in his home country or abroad. After his 2012 solo show at the gallery Luxembourg & Dayan on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, The New York Times called him “the most famous Norwegian artist since Munch.” A popular show he curated at Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible included two live tigers, and his installation, Think I’m Gonna Have a Baby, a kind of psychedelic sex dungeon, was one of the highlights of last year’s Whitney Biennial. The Munch show includes, among other things, the juxtaposition of the 1910 version of The Scream alongside Melgaard’s photograph of a man engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. Munch, too, was hardly a conventional artist. In the show, some of Melgaard’s NAMBLA material is placed alongside Munch’s Puberty, an image of “this frail little girl and an almost phallic shadow on the wall behind her,” as Ina Blom, a professor of art history at the University of Oslo, described the painting.

“I have a hard time imagining that wasn’t extremely thought out by Munch,” Blom, who has written about Melgaard in the past, said in an interview. “But people have forgotten about the outrage and scandal that Munch used to cause, and suddenly they have this idea that Munch is kind of this great humanist. Munch, who read Nietzsche. I’m sure he was something of a humanist, but he was trouble all the way. It’s a kind of cultural amnesia. But the most ardent critics [of the show] are not people who spend a lot of time looking at art.”

She added: “There have also been some art historians who should know better.”

The exhibition has been well attended, though, according to Toft-Eriksen, who also said the response from the public—despite the noise from the Norwegian press—has been largely positive.

Oddly enough, the main defender of Melgaard’s Munch show has been the Protestant Church. In Vårt Land, Kristin Gunleiksrud Raaum, a member of the Norwegian church council, went on the record saying, “Instability and friction are necessary to gain a deeper understanding of the world.” She admitted that, “I’m getting tired of erect penises in his art,” but added that she “would not have anything against” showing Melgaard’s works in a church. (The article is titled “Vil ha Melgaard I kirken”—“We want Melgaard in the church.”)

Melgaard’s studio manager said the artist was “in Norway on holiday” and was not available for comment. (“I would imagine he’s bored by it,” said his New York dealer Gavin Brown in response to Norway’s reaction to the show, though he said he hadn’t talked about it with Melgaard.)

The Norwegian media’s rallying cry for censorship of Melgaard comes at a time when freedom of expression is a major topic of discussion across Europe, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and the recent shootings in Copenhagen at a synagogue and a café hosting a panel discussion on free speech. Asked if the museum had considered ceding to its critics and shutting Melgaard’s exhibition down, Toft-Eriksen said, “That is not an option.”

Translations from the Norwegian courtesy Johannes Berg.

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