Petra Pettersen

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As part of Kristiania's1 Royal Frederik University's centenary celebrations in 1911, a new festival hall - the Aula - was planned as the artistic and symbolic highlight of the jubilee. Separated from its union with Sweden in 1905, Norway had become a sovereign state, and the young country had a desire to proclaim its national status. The decoration of the Aula's eleven wall panels was included in the plan for the university's centennial celebration in September 1911. Edvard Munch entered the competition to decorate the Aula in spring 1909 and his draft was accepted for further development in March 1910, along with proposals made by the artist Emanuel Vigeland2.

THE SUN, 1911
2. THE SUN, 1911,

In August 1911 both artists submitted drafts in monumental format for all of the hall's eleven wall panels for evaluation. Neither Munch nor Vigeland won, however, and the decoration project was then put on hold. Despite this setback, in the following years Munch continued to work on new drafts for the decorations, and in June 1914 he finally received the prestigious commission for the university's Aula.

Munch's first drafts for the decoration project from summer 1909 included motifs that were meant to represent the university's various faculties. The motifs "New Rays" (Physics), "Chemistry" and "History" are represented in the Aula today, while some of his other initial decorative ideas were modified or totally transformed during the working process Today the Aula contains the major motifs of "The Sun", "History" and "Alma Mater", each with side panels. The rays of "The Sun" illuminate the adjoining motifs "Women Turned Towards the Sun" and "Awakening Men in Lightstream" to the left, and "Genii in Lightstream" and "Men Turned Towards the Sun" to the right of it. "History" is flanked by the paintings "Chemistry" and "New Rays", while "Alma Mater" is framed by "Harvesting Women" and "The Source". Munch wrote that he wanted the Aula paintings to form a self-contained and independent world of ideas, and that the visual impression should be archetypically Norwegian and universal at the same time. The Norwegian landscape and the simple people of Norway were sources of inspiration for the three major pictures in monumental format: "The Sun", "History" and "Alma Mater".

"The Sun" became the Aula's principal motif on its rear wall, and is a central part of the decoration project's concept as well (ill.2). The motif was taken from the village of Krager0 by the Oslo Fjord, where Munch settled in 1909 after having lived abroad for many years. The disc of the sun rises above Krager0's skerries, and its flaming rays represent the very source of all life. On a symbolic level "The Sun" represents the university as the source of enlightenment: The rays of the sun are extended to the side panels on the rear wall, where human figures awaken to its rays, and genii are born in the energy of the sun in the two adjoining wall panels, set at a 90-degree angle to the main motif (ill. 3, 4). Two additional wall panels flank "The Sun". In one of them, two women stretch their arms towards its life-giving warmth, and in the other, two men are warming themselves in the rays of the sun (ill. 5, 6).

Several drafts with the theme of human beings drawn to the sun were among the first sketches Munch made. The draft entitled "The Sun and Awakening Nude Men" from 1910-11 demonstrates that he had originally planned to have human figures in the picture (ill.7). In August 1911 he submitted a landscape without figures to the competition (ill.8). To give a landscape a primary position on the rear wall was criticised as not being substantial enough, but despite the criticism - and the fact that the competition was concluded in August 1911 - Munch went on to complete "The Sun" that autumn, in the same form that adorns the Aula today. The painting immediately adjoining "The Sun" on the left, "Awakening Men in Lightstream" (ill.3), is beyond any doubt inspired by Munch's original ideas. The composition consists of three male figures against a brightly coloured, abstract background. One of the men stands upright, stretching his arms towards the warmth of the sunrays. By his feet another man has awoken and basks in the sun's revitalizing force. The third male figure remains sleeping in the cool shadow of the lower half of the picture. The disc of the sun is partially visible in the side panel immediately to the right, and its rays generate the birth of numerous small genii, inspired by Italian Baroque painting (ill.4). In the picture's lowest section two figures are hinted at, thereby creating kinship between the side panels of "The Sun". This trilogy is framed by two additional pictures: two women reaching with their arms towards the sun in the picture on the left (ill.5), while two men - one sitting and cautiously gazing up at the sunrays, the other stretching his limbs - completes the theme on the right (ill.6).

Between 1912 and 1913 Munch painted a series of monumental decorations in a smaller format, which achieved great success in Germany, where they were exhibited and received very positive reviews in the press. The success was referred to in Norwegian newspapers as "Munch's Triumph in Germany", and the University of Jena expressed an interest in acquiring "The Sun"3. This brightly coloured, abstract version is an impressive example of decorative art for public places, and testimony to Munch's relentless drive to continuously develop his motifs (i11.9). He also executed four smaller paintings of the sun motif, all in different styles, as well as sketches on canvas and on paper.

"History", which is the major motif on one of the lateral walls (ill.10), was among Munch's initial ideas for the decoration. A small draft of the motif, originally intended for the rear wall, was submitted to the competition in March 1910, and Munch would execute the picture in full scale for one of the two lateral panels in August 1911. The first monumental draft was composed in Munch's outdoor studio (ill.11) at Skrubben in Krager0 in a highly unorthodox manner, and it's genesis was documented in several photographs. The little draft was first enlarged and transferred onto three large canvases, each stretched on its own support. The canvases were then removed from their supports and stapled to the wood-panelled wall of the outdoor studio, then further supplemented with large canvases laterally, and with smaller canvases above and below. The completed picture consists of a total of 13 canvases, and was sewn together by Munch's housekeeper (ill.12).

The untraditional manner in which Munch executed the draft goes hand in hand with the unusual content of the motif: one of the university's venerable faculties, history, is represented by a man of the people who recounts his life experience to a little boy. The scene takes place under a majestic old oak tree, and a monumental coastal landscape infused with the forces of nature forms the background. Time is exemplified by the weathered landscape, and the old man's story symbolises knowledge. A blind fisherman B0rre Eriksen was the model for the figure, and Munch later wrote that his conversations with Eriksen about his life at sea intensified and enriched the motif. Eriksen's red cap became a bloody crown or helmet, the colourful patches on his clothes vestiges of history with all of its battles, which complemented the oak tree's moss-covered trunk and roots and created a symphony together with the millennium-old layers of rock and weather-beaten skerries on the shore of the sea4.

"History" is flanked by two motifs that represent two more of the university's faculties: "New Rays", which symbolises physics (ill.13), and "Chemistry" (ill.14), which represents that science. A primeval motif - a naked couple with associations to Adam and Eve - is the focus in both decorations. The pictures are allegorical representations, and as such are more traditional in the context of public art, as opposed to "History", which has roots in contemporary Norway. The style here is also totally unique and modern, and both are executed in luminous colours with broad brushstrokes. In "New Rays" Munch makes use of the newly discovered X-rays of science to exemplify physics5. The couple lean towards one another as they examine something they hold in their joined hands. The ground is depicted abstractly and intimated through vibrant, glowing colours that light up the couple's bodies, a visual depiction of how invisible X-rays illuminate matter. The X-rays are further illustrated with the help of thick strokes of paint above the couple's heads, accompanied by crystals. In "Chemistry" there is allusion to an ambiguous act of creation. The woman standing on the right faces the man holding a bowl in her hands. The man, who stands on the left, is pouring something from a vessel into the woman's bowl. The smoke that issues from the operation rises from the woman's bowl towards the sky, and produces three small genii that hover above the heads of the couple. Laboratory vessels and glass tubes with variously coloured contents frame the picture below and on either side.

"Alma Mater", directly translated from the Latin as "nourishing mother", was referred to as Magna Mater, or "great mother", in antiquity and during the Middle Ages, and was a term to denote the Virgin Mary. In an academic context, the term was used metaphorically about a university or college. Munch's original idea for the decoration project was, as previously mentioned, to depict the various faculties of the university. The figure of the "Alma Mater" is thus a metaphysical representation of the mother of all faculties. "Alma Mater" is depicted as a nurturing mother with an infant on her lap that she is breastfeeding, a very down-to-earth depiction - as is the case with the old man in "History" (ill.15). To allow a breastfeeding peasant woman represent "the university's 'Alma Mater'" could well have been considered offensive by Munch's contemporaries, and may have been one of the reasons the University of Oslo was reluctant to give the commission to Munch.

The first monumental draft for "Alma Mater" was called "The Researchers", based on the groups of naked children that were depicted exploring nature (ill.16). The draft for "The Researchers" was executed during summer 1910, and like the draft for "History", was created in three main sections, each of which were composed of various-sized pieces of canvas that were sewn together. Munch claimed that the inspiration for the figure was a farmer's wife whom he had seen when he was 17 or 18, of whom he had made a drawing6. The title of the motif was changed to "Alma Mater" when several of the children were removed from the composition after 1913. Munch was dissatisfied with the final version that was accepted (ill.15), and on several occasions conducted trial hangings of an earlier full-scale version in the Aula (ill.17).

"Harvesting Women" and "The Source" hang on the side panels flanking "Alma Mater" (ill. 18, 19). Multiple drafts in a wide elongated format provide evidence that Munch had considered both motifs as possible candidates for a major motif, but in the end developed them as side panels. This is a consistent feature of Munch's working method: he is reluctant to discard any of his motifs, and they are constantly developed, changed and often used in new settings. This economy of motifs does not only apply to the Aula decorations, but to Munch's art in general. "Harvesting Women" depicts two nude women reaching up to a branch heavily laden with fruit. The tree is used as a symbol for the university, while the fruit becomes a metaphor for the knowledge that is gleaned there. The draft entitled "Medicine. The Sick and the Healthy" 9) shows the original composition of the motif, and was created in spring 1909 as a proposal to represent the faculty of medicine. In the side panel titled "The Source" two men are drinking from a stream that flows down from a mountain in the background; the picture is an allegorical representation of the university, where knowledge has its source.

In September 1916 Edvard Munch's decorations were finally installed in the hall. Many years of work lie behind the decorations: from 1909 to 1916 he executed around 140 drafts and sketches and multiple versions of the eleven motifs in the Aula, many in monumental formats of up to 4.5 by 11.5 metres. This unique material provides insight into Munch's pioneering experimentation with technique and imagery. His work in this connection was extraordinary, and is testimony to his enormous determination, energy and wealth of ideas. No one today questions the motifs or techniques of the paintings, yet when they were created, their themes and style were rare indeed in the context of public art both at home, in Norway, and abroad.


  1. From 1624 - 1924 Oslo was called Kristiania (up until the 1870s spelled Christiania)
  2. Emanuel Vigeland was the brother of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland
  3. Letter from Professor Eberhardt Grisebach to Munch, 20 January 1914
  4. MM N 48, Munch's note, 1933-40
  5. X-rays were discovered in 1895 by German physi-cist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (1845-1923)
  6. Postcard addressed to Jens Thiis, postmarked 8 November 1933.





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