The first thing the ground yielded was cobalt blue: blobs of intense color, and then dirt-encrusted paint tubes. Archeologists are literally uncovering the secrets of Edvard Munch as they sift through the earth at Nedre Ramme, the Symbolist painter’s summer home in southern Norway. Billionaire Petter Olsen, whose family was once Munch’s neighbors, initiated the dig after acquiring the property in 2009.
“We were looking for the outdoor studios, which were long gone. They’d disappeared—they’d rotted—but we knew that he had workplaces outside,” says Olsen, who was the owner of the pastel version of The Scream that sold for almost $120 million at Sotheby’s last year. “Munch erected simple walls instead of easels for these. My parents saw it with their own eyes and told me about it—four studios on the property and lots of artwork scattered about. He didn’t care to lock up.
Now, the artist’s personal possessions are going on display in a temporary gallery on the site. The gallery will also hold the art exhibition “Edvard Munch Returns to Ramme: 100 Years after Taking Berlin,” opening September 23. That show will re-create a 1913 exhibition of Munch’s paintings in Berlin and is part of Norway’s celebration of 150 years of the painter. The fully restored house and a new museum complex are set to open later this year on Olsen’s estate Ramme Gaarde, which contains Nedre Ramme.
Munch was depressed and alcoholic when he sought the peace of the countryside in 1910, and the impact on his art was immediate and far-reaching, says art historian Ina Johannesen. “Munch is called the modern master of the soul, but this is where he turned from the inside to the outside, looking for the first time at the landscape, at the light. We are mapping where he took his views from in certain paintings,” she says. Her team is also searching inside the house for insights into his work. “Could the self-portrait with yellow walls have been painted in the living room?” she wonders.
Visitors will be able to immerse themselves in Munch’s environment, as the museum will include an exclusive hotel. But first the finds must be catalogued and analyzed. Kjartan Fonstelien, unit leader for the archeological team, admits he’s more used to Viking artifacts. “This is the first time we are excavating something from an artist. We use the same methods as for Stone Age sites, but interpretation is very different. If you pick up a bottle of Coca-Cola or some peapods, normally it’s just garbage, something from your own time,” he says. “But you have to take in everything.”
So far, “everything” ranges from one of Munch’s palette knives to barbed wire dating from the Nazi occupation. Johannesen describes the work as painstaking. “It’s a puzzle, putting things in the right context and time frame. It puts you so close to the artist, and it’s a different sort of nearness,” she says. “You can understand the person behind the painting.”
Ann-Marie Michel is an independent journalist writing about arts and culture from her base in Northern England.