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Norway's puritanical climate encouraged native artists and writers to travel abroad. In the 1890s, Munch settled in Berlin and became part of an avant-garde group which changed the course of European art.
The first exhibition of Munch's work in Berlin opened on 5 November 1892, and closed just one week later amid a storm of protest and criticism from the press. Yet as Munch later remarked, 'I could not have asked for better publicity. I never had so much fun'.
Certainly, the furious reaction to what one conservative newspaper described as 'Munch's smearings' was entirely predictable. Berlin in the last decade of the 19th century was a city of staunchly conservative tastes. The wealthy middle classes spent their mornings in the cafe discussing the latest fashions from Paris, their afternoons taking tea in the salon, and their evenings at the Opera. When the Kaiser rode at the head of his Prussian troops, respectable people thronged the streets to cheer these symbols of German military might and imperialist ambition.
But behind the opulent palaces and expensive restaurants lay the seamier side of Berlin: the decaying, rat-infested slums of the working class quarter, the teeming beer halls and the brothels of the red-light districts. And it was in the twilight zone between these two worlds, between the splendour of the Avenue Unter den Linden and the squalor of the back streets, that Berlin's bohemia thrived.
A small tavern called the Black Piglet served as the main meeting place of Berlin's alternative set a floating population of Scandinavians, Jewish intellectuals and German artists in rebellion against the Prussian spirit. It was here that the obscure young men, who were later to change the direction of European art, met to drink, discuss and quarrel about their work, their careers and about the times in which they lived. Only August Strindberg, the 'father' of the group, had achieved fame by the time Munch arrived in Berlin.
A restless and frequently aggressive genius, Strindberg had fled his Sweden in 1892, dogged by debts, a traumatic divorce from his first wife Sin von Essen, and a prosecution for blasphemy arising out of his short story Getting Married. He would often behave abysmally towards the younger artists. Munch tells how Strindberg used to trip him up and leave him lying on the pavement, much to the amusement of his friends and passers-by. Only when Munch threatened to give the older man a beating, did Strindberg cease this particular prank.
Perhaps because of Strindberg's overbearing personality, Munch was more naturally drawn towards the young Polish writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski. Known to his friends as 'Stachu', Przybyszewski was the spiritual leader of the young artists. Like Strindberg, Stachu was obsessed by sexuality and mysticism. One night, the vision of hell which the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland conjured up to his friends was so intense that Stachu took flight. He was eventually Munch Museum, Oslo found in the woodshed, squatting naked on a pile of logs, convinced that he was Satan.
Certainly, Stachu dabbled in black magic and was fascinated by the occult, so much so that he never fulfilled the promise of his early years. But he was a brilliant interpreter of Chopin's music. Munch described him as 'nervous and moody, sometimes up in the skies, sometimes on the brink of despair'. In the tavern, Stachu would suddenly leap to his feet and rush to the piano. In the silence that followed the first chord, Chopin's beautiful music would flow through the room, so that the listeners became 'transfixed, spellbound, oblivious of time and place until the final echoes died away.'
However, Stachu also held another attraction for Munch his wife Dagny Juell. Slim, beautiful and sensual, Ducha, as she was known by the young artists, was herself a writer of great talent. It was she who gave the name Pan to the magazine Stachu edited, which served as the defiant manifesto of the radical young artists in Berlin. The art historian Julius Meier-Graefe recalled how the group would gather in Przybyszewski's dimly lit room in Luisenstrasse: 'Against the wall by the door stood an upright piano, a peculiar instrument. It could be toned down by means of a lever, so that the other inmates of the house were not disturbed even when Stachu hammered on it with his fists. One of us would dance with Ducha, while the others looked on from the table: one spectator was Munch, the other was generally Strindberg. The four men in the room were all in love with Ducha, but they never showed it.' Whether Munch was really in love with Ducha is doubtful, for he shrank from close relationships with women. Certainly though, he was fascinated by Ducha's mysterious sexuality, and the themes of jealousy, anxiety and despair recur in his Berlin paintings.
At other times, the group would gather in Pakow at the villa of the lyric poet Richard Dehmel, whose temperament was so violent and unpredictable that even Strindberg described him as 'a wild man'. In Pakow, the artists could escape the grime of the city and enjoy excursions into the surrounding countryside. But the evenings were dedicated to art. Dehmel with his dark and brooding features would begin by reciting his latest poem. Then Stachu would play Chopin or Schumann on Dehmel's grand piano, accompanied by the Norwegian poet Sigbjom Obstfelder on violin. Obstfelder would also recite his poems in the original Norwegian, relying upon the striking rhythm and sound to convey the meaning of his work.
However, these cultural evenings could also degenerate into drinking sessions which lasted well into the next day. As ever, the beautiful Ducha was the centre of attraction for the young men, although she alone seemed oblivious to the effects of the alcohol which they all drank so liberally. Tragically, Ducha was later killed by a jealous young Russian in Tiblis, who shot her through the head with a revolver before killing himself.
As Munch himself had suggested, it was the storm of publicity that accompanied his exhibition at the Berlin Artists Club in 1892 that launched his career. After the Club approved a motion by the painter Anton von Werner to close down the exhibition, a number of progressive artists, led by Max Liebermann and Ludwig von Hofmann, formed the Gruppe XI which became the Berlin Secession, founded in 1898. The next year, the Secession held its own exhibition, although Munch was still considered far too outrageous to be invited to take parts.
It was not until 1902 that pictures from Munch's Frieze of Life were displayed at the Secessionist exhibition. The exhibition marked a turning point in Munch's career. But more importantly, it represented a turning point in the artistic climate of Berlin itself. The young artists who met at the Black Piglet had set in motion a new era of radical innovation, especially in painting and literature. With the turn of the century another generation of artists took up the banner of rebellion against traditional German values.
Munch himself returned to Berlin in 1906 and 1907 to paint a new Frieze for the foyer of Max Reinhardt's theatre, The Kammerspiele. He also designed sets for Reinhardt's production of Ibsen's Ghosts and Hedda Gabler. But by then, the Black Piglet was part of a by-gone era. Indeed the centre of German art was shifting towards Dresden and Munich. Not until the heady years of the 1920s did Berlin actually recapture the title of Germany's Bohemia.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish