While I was working on the art for my master’s thesis exhibition, I reached a sort of critical-mass point and got a bit huffy at all of the people exclaiming that I must be a real fan of Edvard Munch. Granted, my subject matter probably looked similarly dark and dreary to many; I’ve always enjoyed playing around with that black-humor borderland between gritty and witty, where vampires slurp on souls at teatime and skeletons tap-dance a cheery, leering Totentanz of delight long past All Souls’. I’ve always found great amusement and entertainment in the design and crafting of strange monstrous birds and beasts, outlandish costumes, and rickety structures to house the people that exist on the fringes of imagination. Munch’s images and stories derived from a darker real-world observation, probably tinted by his own mental and physical state of health over time, but the outcome was arguably a comparable sort of oeuvre.
Paste onto those superficial connections the knowledge that I am of Norwegian extraction in pretty much every direction if my lineage is traced out of the US, and I suppose no one could be blamed for linking the Nordic-darkness-tinged artist in front of them with the only really famous one that comes readily to mind. I couldn’t complain about being compared to a justifiably well-known and original artist, now could I?
But I did. I didn’t really like Munch’s work, you see. I thought it obsessively gloomy and depressive and I wasn’t particularly crazy about his style. I tried really hard to disassociate myself and my work from this sticky albatross-of-an-ancestor I was being put into artificial family bondage with and get people to think of all the ways in which I differed from him.
Silly. Turns out, though I still credit myself with having a far more uplifting personal history than his was, what with my generally idyllic existence from day one, we do have a lot in common. When I saw the Munch museum in Oslo for the first time, I was beginning to see why folk might make connections beyond simple Norsk blood, from ties between us in some of the fundamental issues of interest topically and right on through to how we might apply our media to paper or canvas, how we both would wrestle through a whole series on the same subject or even remake the same picture in different media and styles over time to see how we could effect a different outcome with each attempt. I started to notice that there were evidences of similar drawing gestures and brush strokes, an impressionistic looseness with paint and pastel, that were more often similar than not.
What did I do? Rebel against it more. Silly. By the time I really started to come to terms with this whole idea of being on a path not so very different from Edvard Munch’s artistically, no matter how unlike in experience and life, it was kind of a fait-accompli, something that everyone else had acknowledged long before I was willing to do so. As I say, I was already winding up my grad school time when I began to come to grips with saying, Yeah, this is all right with me: I do so like green eggs and ham. I mean, just because Munch was Norwegian-rooted and an artist and explored darkish subjects and I could be described by exactly those same terms doesn’t mean I can’t like him or admit to it!
Once I finally leapt that completely unnecessary and self-imagined chasm, it was easy to begin finding common ground in a lot more places, affinities with a lot of different art practitioners, than I had been open-minded enough to see before. Amazing how much more I can learn when I’m not wasting all of my energy on resistance. Which is, after all, Futile (I have it on good authority). The next step, and a very long and winding road of steps at that, is the one of recognizing what can be gained by learning at the feet of the masters and of those whose place in history and the popular mind is perhaps well established, while still being myself one of the multitude who ‘work the middle’–all of us laboring at our art, our craft, learning and honing skills without any particular expectation of fame or longevity or remuneration to follow.
The short answer: everything. Why would I continue to refuse all offers of insight and inspiration and the potential to learn and grow and delight in what my predecessors–living, dead, famous and obscure–can teach me! Yes, I have learned among other things that great resources of such knowledge can be dug up with a bit of persistence on my part, or as in the case of good old Edvard Munch, shoved at me until I quit whining and pay attention. Or, as in the case of Alf Hurum, handed to me on a silver platter.
Hurum remains an obscure Norwegian and unknown to most Americans, indeed to most people outside of a relatively specialized cadre in the art and music worlds with good reason to know of him. But he was, it happens, a fine composer of piano and violin works–and somewhat influenced by, you guessed it, Edvard Munch. His reach was greater than one might guess not only because his compositional work remains both playable and listenable after lo, these many years, but also because, having married a woman from Hawaii and grown interested in her roots, Hurum spent the latter part of his life in Hawaii and there helped to found the Honolulu Symphony, among other things.
My learning of him was quite simple and straightforward: my brother-in-law, a fine pianist teaching at the University of Agder – Music Conservatory in Kristiansand, Norway, arranged for me to have a commission to do a portrait for the school when they were refurbishing their then-concert hall. This led to my studying up a little on several Norwegian musicians over time, including Hurum, and producing a set of portraits from which the administration could choose, and most importantly, to my hearing some really lovely music I’d never have otherwise known. Even better, my brother eventually did a research project that led him to make a marvelous recording of Hurum’s piano music (Eventyrland – http://www.rockipedia.no/Vault.aspx?entity=1169501), and now I have the privilege of using that as inspiration whenever I wish to listen to music while making art yet again.
I have no expectation of creating a lasting legacy and occupying any spot as a well-known character like Edvard Munch. I don’t even fantasize about lingering for generations in the ken of a refined and fortunate circle in the way of a lesser-known but also gifted artist like Alf Hurum. But I can surely perpetuate what joys there are in simply making art and learning from those betters who have preceded me in it, from here in my own quiet little corner of existence, and that is glory enough for anyone.