Art in Norway's funky second city

View 55 years of Edvard Munch's career in a single trip
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The Independent Online

Bergen is Norway's funky second city, only 90 minutes by plane from the UK and flourishing as a Year 2000 City of Culture - you've just missed the tango festival, but jazz, opera, international film and contemporary dance seasons kick off this month.

Bergen is Norway's funky second city, only 90 minutes by plane from the UK and flourishing as a Year 2000 City of Culture - you've just missed the tango festival, but jazz, opera, international film and contemporary dance seasons kick off this month.

Bergen remains at heart an old Hanseatic fishing-port. Built around two harbours where gulls wheel and boats ply to and fro, the city has the best open fishmarket in the world. A friend boasts that he can fish from the front door of his warehouse studio on the quayside.

The Hansa port remains intact, a warren of ancient wooden alleys and stairs called Bryggen. From the 1360s, German merchants lived and traded here as a tight-knit community. The Hanseatic Museum is a vast and complex trading house, left exactly as it was. Shuffle in intense gloom through cavernous store-rooms, with journeymen's tools and clothes left discarded, to the chancellery, where ledgers can be read by light from the street filtered through opaque coloured glass.

Norwegian burghers eventually took over from the Germans, and from trading in salt-cod and aquavit were able to fashion a 19th-century city of great style, and amass vast private collections of art.

Two of these - the Rasmus Mayer and the Stenersen - are now housed alongside the City Art Collection. Gallery director Gunnar Kvaran has been sifting through a wealth of national and international material to make sense of the treasure trove the city has inherited.

Indigenous art is represented by Christian Krohg, Harriet Backer and Nikolai Astrup. The galleries are also presenting modern work this year in La Figuration Narrative, which brings together artists like Valerio Adami, Peter Klasen, Telemaque and Erro. But Kvaran's raison d'être is to re-present and re-define from the collections the work of Norway's most famous and one of Europe's least understood painters, Edvard Munch.

The Bergen paintings span 55 years of Munch's career, and Kvaran is rescuing from the vaults hundreds of lithographs and woodcuts, which present another side to the artist most of us only know for a group of pictures around the Scream period of 1893-6. The fact that Rolf Stenersen was a personal friend of Munch's, as well as a collector of his art, is invaluable to Kvaran. Stensersen's collection contains the most coherent versions of many of the pictures.

Munch went early to Paris and his initial work has an Impressionist- derived lightness which at first took him away from the sombre palette of 19th-century Nordic painting. But his interest in Impressionism quickly passed on to a stronger interest in form and composition. Inger on the Shore, 1889, and Melancholy, 1894-5, owe much to Manet's bolder use of form and denser colour, and crucially speak more about the life within than light that surrounds and forms surfaces.

From then on in his work, we feel the pull of shape and outline. The woodcuts and lithographs are illuminating, using the same fluid and continual feel in the line, distorting space. Time spent in Berlin drew Munch into a heavier symbolism, seen in the "Vampire and Jealousy" series, of which Bergen has the definitive painting. Munch's forms are overwhelmed by Jungian symbolism of blood, female aggression, and the hostility of the earth.

However, after his breakdown, Munch re-invents himself yet again. Morning Yawn (1913) has a freedom which is completely surprising and joyful in a Munch. His final sublime and luminous landscapes ( Solitude, Winter Night), painted with the same unreal and startling palette, seem to me more the summation of his visionary brilliance than the earlier works for which he is known.

What to do after this voyage through light and dark? Well, Muddy Waters' son, Big Bill Morganfield, is playing Chicago blues down in Bryggen. He uses Muddy's old guitars and touring amp, he howls to a searing sax backing. If Munch was still here, I'm sure he'd be in the front row, catching the sound.

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