Edvard Munch died this day, in 1944.
This story is about a trip I took to Oslo, Norway, in September 2013, to pay homage to the artist nicknamed Bizzarro.
“You have no idea
what we’re getting into,” I say to Van Stein as we board a jet to Oslo. “And I’m not talking about the cost to your
bank balance. We will descend the depths
of despair, of melancholy, of anxiety, depression, and total helplessness.”
Van Stein is an artist; I am a
writer. Depression and helplessness
should come naturally.
By this time, we’ve traveled together for over ten
years exploring creativity and madness, which lately had been exploring me, mostly, paranoia, on the basis that
people truly are out to get me.
From afar: for exposing the deepest
secrets of a country and its inept ruler.
Up close: the unwelcome attention of a psychotic old
hippie bent on acting out his obsession with me by stalking, glaring, cursing,
and staging theatrical exhibits outside his house depicting my death by
decapitation or arrows.
On top of all that, I’m in need of
an Internet detox—or de-charge.
What finer zone, I reason, to
rediscover non-virtual reality than the purity of the Norse.
I’d been planning such a trip, or
working up to it, for almost two years, after reading a biography of Norway’s
best-known artist, Edvard Munch (pronounced moonk).
Munch painted Scream, one of the world’s most iconic paintings.
Munch bared his own soul in his art,
ensuring that those who view his paintings actually feel the anxiety and despair he felt.
His own words: For as
long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety, which I
have expressed in my art. Disease,
insanity and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have
followed me through my life.
Back then, no Valium or Xanax. Only alcohol.
Munch drank a lot of it.
felt as he painted, painted as he felt.
It had not been done before.
Many who viewed Munch’s paintings
could not deal with his honest emotionalism.
For most people in the art establishment, and in general, it was just too unnerving—and highly disturbing.
Munch did not care. He knew what he was doing and why. And he also knew he was a great artist.
A plan to see and feel Munch’s work
lingered in limbo until, spontaneously, it erupted in early September 2013, timing
coincident with fortuitous relevancy: Munch
painted his first Scream after
becoming overwhelmed by a scream of
nature inspired by a bloody red September
we would also be present for a full moon, thus satisfying our luna-seeking
criteria, or, as Van Stein puts it, “We moon business.”
unbeknownst to me until after I bought a ticket, Oslo was in the midst of celebrating
Munch’s 150th birthday with special exhibitions of his work.
Van Stein, having travelled with me
on surreal adventures involving dead artists and writers, mustered, mobilized,
and now lay horizontal in a cubicle next to mine on Virgin’s Upper Class,
hurtling through the night to London for onward travel to Oslo; a blur of a day
in transfer and motion; already the next night when we descend into "that strange city [wrote another notable
Norwegian, Knut Hamsun] no one escapes from
until it has left its mark" beneath a full moon.
I take a photo through the
window and, inspecting the image on my screen, I’m astonished to find the moon
contorted into the shape of a heart, as if to say, Munch loves that you’re coming to see him.
A case of Moonacy, perhaps.
Just right for the mission at hand.
We descend, land, and disembark down a
mobile stairway into the open air: cool and brisk and pure. I steel myself for
Inside the terminal, we are greeted
by a gigantic poster of Scream.
we go, I incorrectly deduce: The commencement of crass commercialization.
“Why do you come to Norway?” asks a
He narrows his eyes, flicks through
“You travel a lot?”
He stamps my passport, a bemused
Next: Baggage. It is a relief to see my battered
suitcase drop into the carousel.
Just beyond Customs, Tom the Driver
leads us to his BMW.
Within seconds, we careen onto a
clean smooth highway, gliding toward a city glow, signs pointing to Sentrum until we arrive at its
epicenter: Karl Johan Gate, featured prominently in
many of Munch’s paintings.
And then the nucleus of epicenter: The Grand Hotel.
We check in, dump our bags, and elevate
to Bar Etoile on the roof.
It is midnight, though our bodies think it is
The solution is simple: Chablis.
It costs almost $30 a glass in
this, the world’s most expensive city.
At this hour, in this place, it is
worth every penny.
At one a.m. the bar closes.
We descend to the lobby and wander
An attractive East African woman approaches
we’re chick magnets in Norway!
“Not tonight, sweetheart, but thanks
Clusters of other such ladies huddle
at street corners, assessing our intent; they are amused, apparently, by our travel
hats: Van Stein sports an Australian Akubra;
I, a felt fedora from Lock & Co with a leather and turquoise hatband I
found in Aspen, Colorado.
“Cowboys!” hollers one of the
smiling street women.
East African men (Somalis, I later
learn) lurk nearby, pimps or drug dealers or both.
“Are you okay?” one of them calls to
couldn’t guess I’d brought my own cornucopia of meds. “I’m good, thanks.”
Van Stein and I continue trucking
down Karl Johan Gate.
A church clock on
high strikes two.
“When I bought my bar,” I explain to
Van Stein, “my bookkeeper, who also owns a bar, told me, ‘Nothing good can
happen between midnight and three in the morning.'”
The night grubs are still grubbing,
proliferating, as we traverse back to The Grand.
After five hours sleep, Van Stein
and I are no longer operating in real time but in surreal time; the bounce, we call it. Surreal
There is Munch to do; he is
everywhere in Oslo.
First, breakfast in the Grand Café
beside a large mural depicting café society as it was in 1879.
One of this mural’s inhabitants is Munch—zoned,
by the look of him, having enjoyed, one understands from research, several drinks before breakfast.
We load up on protein: freshly cooked omelets with everything, sides
of baked beans and smoked fish.
Tom the Driver arrives at precisely
9:03 and we order him to a neighborhood called Grunerlokka where the Munch family
settled in 1875 when Edvard was 12; specifically, Thorvald Mayer’s Gate, the main thoroughfare, and Number 48, Munch’s
first of five homes in Grunerlokka. The
ground floor is now Palazzo Pizzeria; the architecture has not changed.
Newly built when Munch arrived,
Grunerlokka was the “wrong side” of the river.
Overcrowded, its poverty welcomed tuberculosis, cholera, and polio and,
consequently, was rife with sickness and death.
Today, Grunerlokka is Oslo’s
trendiest neighborhood: home to artists, writers, musicians and bohemians, with
the sort of hip bars and cafes that cater to rebellion and free spirit.
At this time of morning, Grunerlokka
is quiet; bohemians and artists are, by nature, a late-night bunch.
We pause, absorb, focus, and snap
photos among locals who seem bewildered by our mission, amused by our enthusiasm.
After two years, the Munch family
moved elsewhere in Grunerlokka, to Fossveien, first at Number Seven, then
Number 9, and next Olaf Ryes plass, Number 4, now painted a pretty purple,
overlooking a park.
And finally, Munch’s last home in
Grunerlokka: Schous plass 1.
Here he painted The Sick Child—his
breakthrough work as an artist.
Today this building houses a coffee
bar called… Edvard’s.
Inside, Scream covers a whole wall.
Van Stein and I savor cappuccino, and the
Next door, an artsy shop displays plaster
Munch death masks. I want to buy one, but the
shop is closed (and remains so throughout our visit).
Bohemians, by nature, do not keep regular
But unlike Arles in France, which
peddles Van Gogh on every street corner (and in between), and Figueras in
Spain, which celebrates Dali with trinkets made in China, Munch is not widely
marketed in Oslo.
On the contrary, there seems an
indifference to Munch, as if the natives merely tolerate his renown.
Perhaps they do not like to be
celebrated for anxiety and despair, alcoholism, and insanity.
Van Stein and I hop back into Tom’s
“We need to go where Munch is
buried,” I say, handing him a printout from findagrave.com.
In all the years Tom has shepherded visitors
to Oslo around the city, no one has ever asked him to see Munch’s gravesite. And until our arrival, Tom did not even know
where Munch is spending eternity. He
shakes his head good-naturedly. He
already understands we are not his normal tourists.
The Cemetery of Our Savior is just
across the Akerselva River, once the divide between wealth and poverty, good
health and bad.
This exclusive graveyard is the final
resting place for notable Norwegians.
Perhaps from stress brought on by
the Nazi occupation of Norway, Munch in 1944 succumbed to the bronchitis that
plagued him most of his life. He
believed that the Nazis, who labeled his art degenerate, would find and destroy his paintings—his "children"—as they had done, to his
horror, in Berlin.
There are no directions in this
cemetery, and though it is not vast, it is not small. It is serene, however, with rolling hills and
Tom enquires from someone who,
though alive, belongs to this graveyard.
The best our
driver can discern is that Munch is out
there, and we try to follow the caretaker’s point, ambling among the dead,
Finally, I come upon Munch’s head in
bronze atop a five-foot monolith. His
bust wears the same expression as the masks in the window display of the artsy
shop next to Edvard’s coffee house.
“I knew it,” says Van Stein. “They came here at night to make a mold.”
We pose, Van Stein and I, for a
photo with Munch. And I leave a wooden
nickel (good for a free beer at my bar) on the cement slab covering his bones.
The graveyard brings to mind
mortality, which I do not fear. Instead it cheers me that I am here, alive, living this moment.
“You might as well enjoy the time
you’re here,” I say to Van Stein while meandering back to the car. “Being alive is just a drop in the bucket compared
to how long you’ll be dead. And
it’s coming faster than you think.”
“You’re over 50 now. Going from 49 to 50 is one-fiftieth of your
life. You know how long it seemed to get
from 4 to 5 years old? That’s because
going from 4 to 5 was one-fifth of
your life. Time is relative. But I wouldn’t worry about it,” I add.
“Does it bother you that you weren’t
here for billions of years before you were born?”
Van Stein shakes his head. “Why should it?”
“Exactly. You won’t even know when you’re not here for billions more.”
“Where is the nearest mental
hospital,” Van Stein asks Tom.
“Like everything else,” replies our
driver. “Ten minutes away.”
Tom shrugs—a hint of trepidation.
Ten minutes later we pull into an
“This is it,” says Tom. “Gaustad.”
This is the asylum Munch’s sister called
home. Laura’s condition caused Munch
much anguish. No doubt, he’d been here
to visit her.
The brick buildings are somber, as
much from age and dampness of a northern clime as the heartache they’ve witnessed.
Van Stein and I walk around,
snapping pictures, expecting any minute to get thrown off the property.
A sculpture catches my eye.
It is small and simple and sits upon
a marble pedestal. The naïve human form
represents both genders, head bowed, hands tucked between its legs.
A brass plaque identifies its
From behind, we arrive at the main
“This is the first thing arriving
patients would see,” whispers Van Stein, pointing at a clock tower crowned with
a steeple, as if it were a church, set behind a ten-foot black iron gate with a
“With a welcoming committee,
inside.” I add.
Tom the Driver sidles up to us. “Would you like to see inside?”
“They have a private museum. I can ask if they’ll open it for you.”
A few minutes later, Tom beckons us
this a trap? Van Stein and I
exchange nervous glances.
A poster near the door of the museum
features a painting of a landscape with clouds at sunset and a sole figure, a
pretty, young blonde female (the artist, presumably), lost in her mind, or out
of it; behind her, a cottage half buried in the ground.
Beneath the image, these words: Psykiatrien I Fokus.
'“Yup,” I say to Van Stein. “The mind is a terrible thing to lose. But psychiatry f---- us real good.”
We descend to a lower ground floor.
Tom guides us in, glances around
“Gives me the creeps,”
Van Stein and I are in our element
as we stroll through a large room housing two patients on gurney-style beds.
Van Stein leans in on one. “Jack, that you?”
Indeed, the wax figure looks
remarkably like Jack Nicholson after his lobotomy in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Adjacent to him: one side, vintage electro-shock equipment,
the other, a display case of lobotomy instruments.
“I think I’d prefer Prozac and
Abilify,” I say.
Another room is Memory Lane,
featuring photos of lobotomized patients’ past, along with some of their
personal belongings, such as shoes and spectacles.
From the look of these portraits,
they, too, would have preferred Prozac and Abilify.
The sun is
scheduled to set at 7:26 and a full moon to begin its rise at 6:58.
Ekeberg’s location, on a hill facing
southwest, is not ideal to view a moonrise, but with weather conditions potentially
changing from balmy and light cloud to overcast and rain, we must grab the sunset
while we can.
Van Stein has chosen the terrace at
Ekeberg Restaurant for his painting. He erects an easel and preps his palette; I
order a round of ice cold Aquavit—a thick, amber, anise-flavored libation
indigenous to the region.
The sun sets slower (or seems to) in
the northern hemisphere. This works to Van
Stein’s advantage as he knocks out a small sketch in oil before proceeding to a
larger board fifteen minutes before the sun sinks below the horizon.
He paints freer than usual, an
explosion of color.
He mumbles something about The Munch Museum unlocking something.
order sandwiches of Parma ham and cheese—and more Aquavit.
Feeling refreshed, and tight, we
return to the Scream site.
Stein photographs me standing where Munch’s screamer stood, and, inexplicably, I appear
When he turns his lens
the other direction, he catches Orb Storm
Orbs are translucent balls of white
light that appear in digital photography, usually in graveyards, cathedrals and
haunted houses. Some people think they
represent ghosts or angels; others believe they are aliens.
Many scoff at such a notion,
unwilling to accept another dimension—or anything that challenges their belief
In our arrogance as humans, most of
us believe if we cannot perceive something, it must not be there. Digital
photography is able to discern a phenomenon (we’d call it supernatural) that
the human eye cannot capture.
The Grand is
fully booked for the weekend and orders us out.
We soon discover that every hotel in Oslo is fully booked.
Could Munch be that big a draw? (No,
it was a marathon.)
I have a Norwegian friend I’d never
before met, but we’d talked on the phone and e-mailed one another, and, very
graciously, she expressed a desire to host Van Stein and me during our visit.
Acceptance of such hosting becomes
essential, as our only other options are sleep on park benches or, as I suggest
to Van Stein, board the evening ferry to Copenhagen and allow chance and destiny to dictate
Copenhagen would have been my choice,
if only to avoid surrendering independence.
But sometimes you’ve got to give up something to gain something.
Before vacating our rooms, the
artist and I stroll down to the harbor. People in dark clothing on the streets look
to me like a series of Munch paintings.
Oslo thing—or my new reality?
It seems odd that the world’s most expensive city is without
the high-end shops that strategically situate themselves among wealth: No Gucci, no Prada, no Cartier. No Hermes, no Louis Vuitton.
The shops are all native, perhaps to
preserve purity. Aside from the traditional lusefafte
(heavy wool cardigans) and plastic trolls, there is nothing interesting to buy.
All I’m looking for, anyway, is a
talisman. Something to carry at all
times to remind me of Munch—an antidote, perhaps, against anxiety, despair, and
At a jewelry shop called
David-Andersen (no Tiffany here), I come upon a sterling silver nail file.
As a kid, I chewed my nails
On our return path from the harbor,
we pass a precious metal company called K.S. Rasmussen, whose display window
contains silver ingots.
A block later I stop in my tracks, having
experienced an epiphany of sorts.
“That’s it,” I say to Van Stein.
“Let’s go back.”
I ask to see Rasmussen’s 100 gram
It is soft with rounded corners, a
pleasure to hold, to clasp my hand around.
My search for a talisman is over.
The teller, a middle-aged woman,
tries to talk me out of it. “We have to
charge 25 percent premium on silver ingots,” she says.
“Really? I’ll take it.” I remove the ingot from its wrapper and place
it in the palm of my left hand, feel its power soothe my soul before slipping
it into my pocket.
From this moment, whenever I feel
anxious about anything, I pluck the ingot from my pocket, as some might handle
a meditation stone or rosary beads, and appreciate that I am here and I’m okay.
“Where are you
going?” asks the cheerful check-out clerk at the Grand’s front desk.
“Maybe a park bench because you’re
kicking us out,” I say, “but thanks for asking.”
(At least everyone speaks English.)
In fact, Tom the Driver is on hand
to stow our bags and kill time before we’re due to meet our host.
I suddenly realize we have not yet seen
Engebret, the oldest café in Oslo and headquarters for the Artists Association,
to which Munch belonged—until Engebret 86’d him for drunkenness and accusing a
server of stealing his scarf and gloves.
We alight at a cobblestoned square
in the old-town.
Engebret has changed little since
Munch was allowed inside. Standing in the room where the
artists met, it is not hard to imagine the drinking, the exchange of creative
ideas, the madness.
Tom the Driver
points across the cobblestones from Engebret to the Museum of Modern Art.
Van Stein and I bound over to see
what Norwegian artists have been doing since Munch.
Inside, it is not about painted
It is about distortion and
turmoil—and very disturbing.
In fact, scarier
than what we saw at the insane asylum.
I cannot stand it. Literally.
I have to leave. I reach for my
new talisman and beat a hasty exit.
“It is Munch’s legacy,” says Van
Stein, later. “Munch’s paintings were unnerving to people in the late
1800s. He has given his permission to
the newer generations to exhibit their insanity. I think the point of these modern artists is
that things are not always nice and pleasant.
I call it what the f--kism.”
mentioned, I met our host through e-mail, which led to telephone conversations,
which finally led to this in-person rendezvous.
Her unexpected appearance in my life
pertained to my past intelligence work, and to a blog—my blog—that mentioned
her name, in passing.
She eventually saw my post while researching
her name on Google.
Unlike several others, who did not
like seeing their names on my blog and who wrote me e-mails spitting venom, blood,
and futile threats of litigation, my host’s missive was sweet and courteous,
with a simple request: please remove my name.
Intrigued by the story that had
landed her name in my blog, I telephoned her.
In the most straightforward manner,
she confided who, what, where, when, why,
Satiated by hearing a verified and
elaborated-upon first-person account of the truth as I already knew it, I immediately
removed her name from my blog and we became friends.
She shall remain the mystery host
because that is how she prefers to live:
a simple life in the country based on positive energy; and because she
was forthright with me, and courteous.
Since first meeting by e-mail and
phone, we enjoyed many more telephone conversations about that which bound us
My host shields a big secret—one
that would set tongues a-wagging on seven continents. Her secret became my secret.
The countryside—and Sweden is no
exception—harbors many secrets. This
part of Sweden, near the Norwegian border, is considered a grey zone due to its history of partitioning. The people who sparsely populate it are
It is the perfect hideaway.
to Oslo, and The Grand, it is time to wind down.
I meet Van Stein in the Grand Café
bar, our final night in town.
A bottle of absinthe catches my
This is what Munch would have drunk.
I order a nip, as Munch called it.
Sadly, this bar does not possess
absinthe paraphernalia. No perforated
Furthermore, the bartender does
not even know I need a sugar cube and small jug of water.
Improvising, we toast the Green Fairy, and Munch.
Suddenly, a rosy glow fills the
We step outside to marvel the
I snap a photo, inspect it;
something odd catches my eye.
I zoom in, snap another pic and show
it to Van Stein. “Tell me you see what I
see?” I say.
Incredulous, Van Stein catches the
specter on his own camera: a highly
defined, distinctive face.
The specter’s mouth is wide open, as
if … screaming.
In awe, we
return to our absinthe at the bar.
Then we grab a table and steady ourselves for the special 150th anniversary Munch Menu.
First course: Grilled scallops, petit pois, fried rye bread,
and mussel foam.
Second: Chateaubriand with herbed butter and
Third: Chocolate éclair filled with vanilla cream.
This was Munch’s meal of choice, for
which he would try, mostly in vain, to barter his paintings.
dinner, I raise my camera to snap a photo of the ceiling over Munch’s favorite
table, near the window.
Upon my digital screen, an unusual orb within the image.
Maybe. Who can truly say?
retire early with a 6:45 a.m. alarm-call.
It comes at 2:33: karaoke from a bar down the street.
The croakers aren’t singing, they’re
Lesson: If you cannot create art, there is always
and enemies (real and imagined) pushed him to succeed, and to quell his angst
and depression through art therapy.
Oslo’s mark on me: a realization that
paranoia is fine, as it pertains to genuine enemies.
Says my brother, echoing a Chinese
proverb: Your worst enemy is your best
Or, as Nietzsche put it: You
need formidable enemies to keep you sharp.
Or, says a sign in the Baltimore
saloon where Edgar Allan Poe drank his final drink: Dry
your tears and soldier on.
one needs to pay a therapist 175 bucks an hour for years of analysis.
They need only do their art.
If artless, scream at the moon.