Edvard Munch stayed for 18 months in the German coastal town Warnemünde – a peaceful and experimental period. During the cold war it was forgotten. Today, the old fisherhouse where he lived is an artist residency and artwork.
A man sits behind the translucid curtains on his light-flooded veranda. Ladies in elegant dresses and hats pass by, kids play on the cobblestone street, seagulls fly in circles over the canal and fishermen sell their catch of the day at the promenade. Am Strom (“On the River”) was in summer 1907 a lively and popular street in Warnemünde. And house number 53 had just gotten a new tenant, who loved to watch people without being seen.
“I‘ve taken up residence in Warnemünde, a German version of Åsgårdstrand, and have rented a fisherman’s house”, wrote Edvard Munch to his aunt Karen Bjölstad. It belonged to the harbor pilot Carl Nielsen. His summerhouse in Åsgårdstrand, outside of the Norwegian capital, was an important place for relaxation and inspiration. Now he found another one on the continent.
The Norwegian artist came in May 1907 to the little northeastern German town by the Baltic Sea. Through the train ferry it was an intersection between Scandinavia and the continent. From here it took him only four hours to Berlin or Hamburg, and six hours to Copenhagen.
Munch knew Warnemünde from his travels to European cities. Here he found the support he felt was lacking in his home country. After long, restless periods in Berlin, Paris, Lübeck, and Weimar, he sought out that peaceful seaside locale. Highly popular at the fin-de-siècle, the atmosphere of Warnemünde’s spa attracted Munch strongly, offering him above all a hope of shedding physical and mental stress, together with a chance for intensive work. Thanks to the support by Ernest Thiel, a Swedish financier and art collector, he had enough money to rent this picturesque fisherman’s house in a town with 4,200 inhabitants.
“Fresh air and good financial conditions have produced great things. I’m feeling much better. Since the summer I’ve been living on porridge, milk, bread, and fish… Now I feel reborn”, wrote the artist to his patron in September that same year. He promised to give Munch 12.000 krona in total, with a first advance of 1500 – at that time a decent yearly salary.
Munch produced for Thiel a more colorful replica of The Sick Child. In that period he also painted children playing in the alleyway of Warnemünde, marked by intensive brushstrokes. In Alter Mann in Warnemünde, he found inspiration within the rented house itself. The motif is the retired harbour pilot Nielsen, working next to a blooming pear tree in the courtyard of his elongated house. In these works the oil paint is often applied in thick layers directly from the tube to the canvas.
Only a distant memory during GDR
The pear tree is still there. At this spring day it’s not blooming yet, but in August it will bear fruit again. Like for over 200 years. Petra Schmidt Dreyblatt shows an image of last year’s big green pears on her smartphone. We are standing in the little courtyard with the old tree and the thick stoned ground that you can see in Munch’s painting. Mrs. Schmidt Dreyblatt is the artistic director of the house. Together with other supporters she has founded the Edvard Munch House association which celebrates it’s 20th anniversary this May.
During GDR times she worked at the museum of local history in Warnemünde, a half-timbered house right around the corner. “Older citizens often came in and told stories from their lives”, the historian and art historian says. “One day Liselotte Zander entered our museum. She talked about a certain Mr. Munch, an artist who once lived in her house. It made me curious and so I tried to find out more.”
Schmidt Dreyblatt retrieved a guest-list of the spa’s local gazette, the Warnemünder Badeanzeiger, which announced in early June 1907 the arrival of the “art painter” from Norway. After a short stay in Hosmann’s Hotel, he took up residence at Am Strom 53. Researching about a Norwegian expressionist painter was not a key interest of the GDR regime, so it was difficult to obtain further information.
The historian met Mrs. Zander many times, they became friends and she was one of the few guests on her last birthdays. They often sat on the veranda, which at one time was Munch’s window to daily life in Warnemünde. Since 1918 it was the home of Zander, born Harms. Her father bought the house after the previous owner died.
On 9th of November 1989 the wall came down, permitting Mrs. Schmidt Dreyblatt new possibilites for extended research. “In the chaotic times after the reunification, the ownership of land and houses had to be clarified. Mrs. Zander did not have children of her own, and during her lifetime I hardly saw any relatives. When she died in 1990 suddenly over 60 people claimed their alleged heritage.”
In order to preserve both the memory of Edvard Munch and the culturally and architecturally important fisherman’s house at Am Strom 53, the Edvard-Munch-Haus e.V. was established in December 1994. „With generous support from German and Norwegian industry and private sponsors, the association was able to purchase the house in 1996“, says Mrs. Schmidt Dreyblatt as she walks me through the building.
It’s one of the few extant fisherman’s houses in Warnemünde, this type of house can be traced back to the 17th century. Because of the extended chain of sand-dunes behind the beach, the land available for development was limited and the houses’ foundations very narrow, sometimes only eight meters wide, henced unusually deep. From the veranda you come to the main house, then the interior rooms, reached through a long corridor entered one by one: Munch lived in the first one, behind that was the kitchen, followed by a back room. Attached to the front house was lodging for old people, this is where Nielsen stayed. In the second floor there are nowadays two small apartments for the artists-in-residence program. One faces the the narrow interior court, the other one looks over the street, the canal and the train station (which was even there in Munch’s time).
A residency for contemporary artists
Since the opening ceremony on 11 May 1998, artists of various media from Germany and Norway live, paint, write and make music in the house, and at the end present their work to the public. The house is atelier, forum and common stage alike.
For example, Olav Christopher Jenssen exhibited The little house (2012), drawings from his visits to Åsgårdstrand. So Munch’s two important places of retreat and refuge were combined during this exhibition. The Cologne based artist, Markus Döhne (1999) got inspired by the fisherman’s house Am Strom 53. He likes to work with material he finds on location. Döhne was especially intrigued by the self-portrait Munch made with his camera during his time in Warnemünde. He sits on the veranda and looks out of the window, his left hand reveals his crippled finger. In Åsgårdstrand, Munch received a gunshot injury while dramatically ending the love affair with Tulla Larsen. The highly sensitive artist returned to this event repeatedly in subsequent years – as in 1907/08 when he created the Green Room series.
For his serigraph Döhne used only the detail of the hand in that famous self-portrait – pointing thereby to a wounded biographical point in Munch’s life. Today Döhne’s original filter on which the silkscreen prints were produced hangs in the veranda directly under a copy of the photo.
Experimental photos and the Bathing Men
110 years after Munch left, this veranda still has a special aura. Today the wooden walls are painted green and the rooms are filled with different furniture, but you can still see outside of the window front to the promenade, as some fishermen are going out for trips next to a flamingo shapped paddle boat. Tourists often stop in front of the small house. There are no curtains, so now we, the people inside, are being watched.
Another famous self-portrait shows Munch in the corridor of the veranda next to the inside door. He stands between his paintings of playing children and the old man. Munch experimented a lot with his camera – by opening the blend he created special effects. It looks like he is walking through the image. The photo can also be seen as a frieze of life, as he was 43 years old at that time.
Alongside landscapes, genre paintings, and portraits, important works emerged during these 18 months on the Baltic coast, including the famous Bathing Men series. These images point to Edvard Munch’s physical and emotional well being during his stay in Warnemünde. He lost more than 15 kilos. During that phase, the artist took naked photographic images of himself at the beach, and stirring yet another scandal. At that time there were explicit rules in covering oneself while on the beach.
The photos of him and the lifeguard, who agreed to pose as a model, were also inspiration for his paintings of bathing men walking towards the observer. He experimented with different painting techniques. For the lifeguard this modeling had serious consequences: he lost his job. The painting was too shocking for the Hamburg gallerist and wasn’t exhibited at first in Germany. But in Finland – home of sisu and sauna culture – the first version of the painting was already bought by National Museum Ateneum in 1911. Munch later made different versions and added children to the beach scenery.
In-between his time at the seaside resort by the Baltic Sea, Munch visited Paris and Berlin. His contract with his German gallerist Cassirer expired during this period. He was forced to organize exhibitions by himself in Germany and abroad, causing enormous stress. The support of his patron Gustav Schiefler, a judge in Hamburg and an art collector, couldn’t stop his downfall. He started drinking again, and had halucinations. “I‘ve packed up all my work in Warnemünde and it’s unlikely I’ll stay there longer”, Munch wrote to Schiefler. “It’s also in the end a dreadfully bourgeois place and simply doesn’t suit me.…!”
Probably no place would have suited him at that time. During autumn 1908, he had a breakdown in Copenhagen and checked in to Dr. Jacobson’s private clinic, where he spent the following eight months. “The Warnemünder later shipped him all the paintings which he had left behind to Norway, for which they built extra crates“, says Mrs. Petra Schmidt Dreyblatt. She sits now on the sofa and looks out on the promenade. The people wrote him kind letters, but he never came back to Warnemünde.
It’s a shame Munch didn’t live later, because during a walk along the sandy beach he would now see many naked people. Already in GDR times Freikörperkultur (FKK, Free Body Culture) became popular. On the east pier there is a long section dedicated to FKK-culture. Munch might have loved it and perhaps he would have created more works in this little town.
Opening of jubilee exhibition is on 24th of May in Warnemünde, Am Strom 53. It shows photographs by Angelika Fischer who works with the house since over 20 years.
This is a movie/documentary by Norwegian television which also shows around 1 hour 14 the visit at the house when Liselotte Zander was still alive. https://tv.nrk.no/program/FSAM02007689/krystallandet