Towards the end of the 19th century it became more common for artists to paint outdoors - en plein air. The invention of painting tubes made it easier to bring the studio outdoors, and the idea of recreating natural light became a major focus, especially for the Impressionists.
Photographs from the end of the 1880s show Munch standing with his easel outdoors in Åsgårdstrand. During the summer of 1907 he painted several pictures on the beach at the seaside resort Warnemünde in Germany. He built his first large permanent outdoor studio in 1909 at the property Skrubben in Kragerø, south of Oslo. It was here he began work on the Aula decorations for the University of Oslo. The largest sketches measure up to 4.5 x 11 metres and many were too large to paint indoors.
Munch leased Skrubben until 1915. He was not allowed to buy it, but in 1910 he purchased Nedre Ramme in Hvitsten. From 1913 he also rented a farm at Jeløy in Moss. He continued to work on the Aula project outdoors at all three locations. In 1916 Munch purchased a property called Ekely on the outskirts of Oslo, where he also had several outdoor studios put up. He continued to paint in a monumental format and remained interested in the themes of the large Aula paintings. His prolific production required considerable space, and several sketches and paintings were even stored for periods in the outdoor studios. Munch is purported to have said that some of the Aula sketches hung outdoors for as many as four years, a fact that has had consequences for the condition of the pictures.
What happens when paintings are exposed to all types of weather?
Original photographs reveal that deterioration had already reached a considerable level during Munch's lifetime, including works that were not completed, and that he continued to work on.
Munch experimented with various painting techniques in his attempts to achieve a matt surface – in particular during the years following 1909. He heavily diluted his oil paints and added chalk to them, and he experimented with other binding agents such as casein, egg and animal glue. Some of the materials and techniques have made the paint layers in works from this period more vulnerable to deterioration. In the paintings that have been exposed to daylight, pollution, extreme fluctuations in atmospheric moisture and especially temperatures below freezing, we can see that the outdoor environment has accelerated the rate of deterioration of the already fragile surfaces, making the paint brittle, porous and generally unstable. Movements in the canvases have caused paint loss and cracking. Atmospheric moisture, water and snow have caused tidelines and stains in the pictures. Mould and traces of bird droppings are also visible in many of his works.
When the municipality of Aker (now Oslo) assumed responsibility for Munch's bequest, many of the over 1100 paintings had sustained considerable damage and loss of the original paint layers. The question for conservators is whether it is appropriate to restore what has been lost, and present the paintings as intact?
Many of Munch's paintings are damaged to such a degree that one might even call restoration a form of deception. Where does one set the limit for authenticity if major parts of a work are not executed by the painter him self? A work of art is also a historic document, and the damages can tell a story about the life of the painting. Exposure to the outdoor climate, Munch's painting methods and his general treatment of the pictures place his works in a special art historical perspective. This is why evaluations by a wide range of art experts are important when it comes to conservation, and ethical discussions of this kind will always be open for new evaluations.
To appreciate paintings with visible damage requires getting used to for the viewer. The Munch Museum thus has a responsibility to inform the public about these issues, in order to provide insight and understanding for Munch's artistic practice. In other museums and private collections, Munch's paintings are often treated based on traditional conservation approaches and may therefore have undergone a change in appearance after treatment. Treating a matt surface with varnish, for example, will cause the colours and surface to become more saturated and glossy.
The Munch Museum's policy regarding conservation today is to preserve the collection in the condition it presumably was in at the time of Munch's death in 1944. In that way we can take into account the fact that Munch had accepted the condition that he had deliberately created or inadvertently brought about himself in the pictures.
This is not an a simple matter, however, and an important question to ask is whether some of the damage is of such a character that it accelerates the condition of the work of art. Are we able to distinguish between the dust and surface dirt from Munch's time, and that which has accumulated in the years since his death? Many of the paintings have been on loan and exposed to considerable strain. Our most important task is to attempt to slow down any further deterioration and insure that no new damage or loss of original material occurs.
Much of today's focus on the treatment of Munch's paintings revolves around consolidating fragile paint layers that are porous and unstable, and on the verge of loosening. The pictures frequently have a matt surface and this is a challenge for the conservator. Considerable research is being conducted on finding new methods and materials that do not produce changes in colour or the surface gloss, or cause new stains. Analyses are being conducted on Munch's original materials and painting techniques. In this way we will be able to understand the progression in the degradation of the materials. We frequently find that a treatment method appropriate for one painting will not necessarily be right for another. Conducting analyses and the conservator's development of working methods is thus an ongoing process.
We know of many remarks made by Munch, as well as others who met him and knew him, that gives an idea of how Munch treated his pictures, and what he was trying to achieve with his experiments. The expression Hestekur (Kill or Cure) is often used in reference to pictures that have traces of having spent time outdoors or of careless handling, with significant damage as a result of this.
Yet it has never been determined whether Munch used the term Hestekur himself, or why, or in what instances this type of treatment was deliberate or inadvertent on Munch's part.
By treating the pictures as we do today, based on the principle of minimal intervention, and that the treatment we carry out is as far as possible reversible, we try to preserve the artworks and at the same time we facilitate for new methods and findings in the future. In this way we believe that we can preserve Munch's art as long as possible, for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.