The greatest collection of works by Edvard Munch ever to appear for sale on the international market was sold for nearly £17 million at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art sales on 7 February.
The eight paintings were expected to go for around £12 million in total, but after the bidding was over, the works had raked in around £17 million with 'Summer Day' selling for £6.16 million. Simon Shaw, specialist in charge of the sale at Sotheby's said: “We are delighted with the results of this historic sale of paintings by Edvard Munch which received the appreciation and understanding it deserved. These were rare and important works which attracted bidding from all corners of the globe, reflecting the increasing importance of Munch to collectors today. 46% of the works were bought by UK buyers, 43% by other European and 11% by Asian and Russian.”
From the collection assembled by Thomas Olsen, the artist’s patron, the group of works spanned Munch's career, from youth in Kristiania, through the German years to his final period in Hvitsten.
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born in Løten and studied in Oslo. Whilst his early work was conventionally naturalistic, during the 1880s he spent several years in Paris where he was influenced by the Symbolists, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Throughout the 1890s he spent time in Berlin exploring the human condition and developing his recurrent themes of illness, jealousy and madness. It was at this time that he produced the celebrated ‘Frieze of Life’ series, a reflection of the neuroses which stemmed from his own traumatic childhood, plagued by the deaths of his mother and sister. These iconic themes all featured in the Olsen Collection.
Munch, alongside Van Gogh, is considered one of the greatest selfportraitists of modern times. In recent memory, no self-portrait by him has appeared on the market so this auction. ‘Self-portrait in front of two-coloured background’ from 1904 is an example of the artist’s merciless introspection, as well as of his avantgarde style. His separation from Tulla Larsen in 1902 had a profound effect on Munch and for several years he was haunted by the trauma of the surrounding events. The years of unrest and psychological turmoil in his life were marked by a nomadic lifestyle, with visits to Paris in 1903 and early 1904, where he saw paintings by Fauve artists. He was undoubtedly influenced by the vivid and daring use of colour, as seen in the bright green and yellow tones used in ‘Self-portrait in front of two-coloured background’. It sold for nearly £3.6 million.
Also from 1904 is the painting ‘Summer Day’, the most important Munch to be offered for sale since Sotheby’s sold ‘Girls on a Bridge’ in New York in 1996 for the world record price of $7.7 million (approx £4.3 million). ‘Summer Day’ draws on the celebrated ‘Frieze of Life’ that Munch had recently exhibited at the Berlin Secession, and was commissioned by Max Linde for his children's nursery in Lübeck. In this significant commission Munch depicts a young couple in the foreground and groups of people along the shore. The painting juxtaposes a rare sense of innocence and joy with the haunting atmosphere typical of his finest paintings. Upon completion Linde judged the commission unsuitable for his children’s room and the work remained with the artist. It sold for a record £6.16 million.
'Summer Day', oil on canvas, painted in 1903-04, sold for £6.16million
Later works in the Olsen Collection included ‘Self-Portrait recovering from Spanish Flu’ from 1918, which marks Munch’s recovery from the epidemic that had killed more than two million people in the First World War. The bright treatment speaks of his exhilaration at escaping death, while the sketchiness of the canvas reflects his physical weakness at that time. It sold for nearly £1.7 million.
‘The Wave’ epitomises Munch's life-long fascination with the coast, one of the key symbols of his art. Whilst his early landscapes mirror the artist’s mood, this 1919 composition is a celebration of nature and its forces: waves beating against the shore invoke the eternal rhythm of the sea, while the bright palette reveals Munch’s admiration for the art of Van Gogh. ‘The Wave’ fetched £1.5 million.
In 1933 Hitler commissioned the German Art report and Munch was one of 112 artists whose work fell into the category of ‘Entartete Kunst’ (degenerate art). Over 16,000 works were confiscated from public collections in Germany, 82 of them by Munch. Desperate to save his pictures, Munch consulted Thomas Olsen whose role as patron and neighbour in Hvitsten was now extended to help in financing the homecoming of many of the pictures.
An auction was arranged in Oslo in 1939 but soon after the works were brought back to Norway, the country was invaded in April 1940. Olsen rapidly transported the paintings to safety at Sandbu, the family mountain farm, near the village of Vaagaa.
'Generations', oil on canvas, painted circa 1904, sold for £1.4 million.