The Norwegian graphic novelist Steffen Kverneland’s biography of artist Edvard Munch is a digressive delight. His biography of Edvard Munch is the first and only comic that has received the Brageprisen for best non-fiction, Norway’s most prestigious literary award. Read more about the portrait of two Norwegian geniuses.
Munch’s “The Scream” is one of modern art’s landmarks. Its skull-shaped, foetus-like visage with the anguished gaze made its Norwegian creator infamous until he died. Steffen Kverneland’s graphic biography of Edvard Munch (translated into English by Francesca M Nichols) begins in 2005 at the museum devoted to the Norwegian artist in Tøyen, Oslo.
The book features Kverneland and fellow artist Lars Fiske. There is hardly any domestic award Kverneland and Fiske have not received for their comics, either together or separately. To this day, however, pundits still debate what it shows. Is “The Scream” an existential howl? A tortured self-depiction? Or just the marketing of misery by a talented victim?
Wandering its galleries at Tøyen in Oslo with his friend and collaborator, Lars Fiske, the pair work themselves up into quite a frenzy. Kverneland and Fiske have made their mark in Norwegian comics since the mid-1990s. Kverneland (b. 1963) with crime adaptation De knyttede never (The clenched fists) in 1993. It was named Norway’s comic of the year. Kverneland has made portraits his specialty, while Fiske is doing various newspaper assignments, collected in the book My Style (2014).
Kverneland bought his first serious book on Munch at age fifteen. This was a year before he started to create comics, initially publishing strips in the humor magazine KOnk. The artist has put himself into the story.
In an interview with the Norwegian literary journal Bokvennen, Kverneland said, “I’m looking for innovative, different things. I’m not so much looking for the reading experience, I’m more after new ways to perceive comics. Honestly, I’m most concerned with form. To me comics reading is curricular activity. This probably sounds terribly boring, but I do think it’s fascinating. I get a real kick out of reading something that is innovative, almost more so than a good story.”
Kverneland’s style is brassy and bold – distinguished by taut lines and boisterous, gonzo graphics. But the artist, who is also a wonderful portraitist, has engaged in several projects that make great lives accessible. Previously he has worked on the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Henrik Ibsen. Yet, over the years, he slowly inched closer to Edvard Munch.
The book, tracking back and forth through key events in Munch’s life, has become more a scrapbook than conventional biography. On Lars Fiske’s particular qualities, Kværneland says he has many strong qualities. “While I have no strict framework, Lars is quite the opposite. He is minimalist and very strict. In this book, Lars kept the total view. He took care of the main threads of the story, and made sure all the important bits were included. Together we also managed to shave off unnecessary drivel.”
Although there have been countless Munch biographies, Kværneland felt the comic-book format held new possibilities. To up the ante, Kverneland made a central, radical choice: in place of reported speech, Munch would tell his story. The artist would be heard only in his actual voice.
However, many facts are missed out altogether. About Munch’s most famous painting, “The Scream”, Fiske says, “It’s like the sickest self-portrait ever, like Ben Kingsley with planets for eyes.”
Nevertheless, it’s a mesmerizing read, taking the eternally impoverished (because he was famously reluctant to sell his work) and periodically unstable Munch from Christiania (now Oslo) to Paris and Berlin and back again.
“In our Munch biography, the thematic context was more important than the chronological,” says Kværneland.
Stubborn and frequently arrogant, Munch is rarely a sympathetic figure in this version of his life; there’s a reason why Kverneland makes him look, as a younger man, all chin and waxed moustache.
“The idea was to make the paintings as identical to the originals as possible, but in watercolor. I’ve always liked to copy,” says Kværneland. “It’s like meditation, only using your craft. Painting in oil and watercolour, as I did use, are very different techniques. I had to distil every stroke of his brush. This took a lot of thinking, and I learned very much about Munch’s way of painting. It was almost a physical analysis of each stroke he had done, which made me see the pictures in a more slow and thorough manner,” he concludes.
But his originality and commitment to his art is never in doubt and it’s this that gives the book its singular energy. Funny and irreverent, it makes Munch seem very human, even as it places his genius beyond doubt.
For those who love art, comics or just great storytelling, there’s much more to relish inside Munch. Not only is its visual presentation a tour-de-force. The big surprise is how Kverneland subtly shows us something ineffable. His book captures art’s essential, accretive genesis – how, over time, many separate moments and events can cohere into something original. The Scream’s long evolution takes up more than fifty pages. Yet, at the same time, it’s the book’s true story.
Portrait of Two Norwegian Geniuses, written by Tor Kjolberg