San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 8th, 2009
Texas State astronomers unravel more Munch mysteries


Texas State Astronomers Don Olson and Russell Doescher, along with honors students Joseph Herbert, Robert Newton and Ava Pope, have used their forensic skills with the stars to unravel another mystery regarding the works of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

Olson and Doescher already connected the red sky of Munch’s “The Scream” to the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in the Pacific Ocean. The eruption equaled 200 megatons of TNT, or 13,000 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima at the end of WWII.

“We were investigating Munch’s 1893 painting Starry Night, and discovered that two other Munch paintings – The Storm and Sunrise in Åsgårdstrand – featured the same settings and also had been dated to that year,” said Olson. “Several chronologies of Munch’s life place him in Germany at this time. One biography goes so far as to say, ‘Summer came, and Munch had neither the money nor the inclination to go to Norway.’ But we discovered a memoir by Jens Thiis, a long-time friend of the artist, which places him and Munch together in Åsgårdstrand on August 17, 1893.”

The Texas State team, now having a starting date for the works, traveled to Norway to locate the painting sites, using topographic measurements and computer calculations. The data convincingly tied Munch’s three paintings to his visit to Åsgårdstrand.

While investigating “The Starry Night,” a bright “star” above the horizon that was widely believed to be the planet Venus was instead identified by the team as the planet Jupiter. At the time Munch painted the work, Venus was below the horizon. Additionally, a vertical white line visible among trees, and thought to be a reflection of the moon, was revealed to be a flagpole, which was clearly pictured in several vintage photographs the team discovered.

“The Storm” had the team sifting through Norwegian weather records. They discovered the painting depicts an unusually strong thunderstorm that hit Åsgårdstrand on Aug. 19, 1893.

Thiis’ memoir recounts the storm, saying, “The next day, Munch painted the events in his famous picture The Storm … The house with the illuminated windows is the hotel where we stayed, and the woman in white in the foreground is my future wife.”

Now knowing the date and directions, the team identified the single star in the upper right hand corner of the painting as Arcturus, the second brightest star in the Norwegian sky.

The position of the rising sun and glitter path in the fjord, as seen in “Sunrise in Åsgårdstrand,” provided another piece of evidence confirming Munch’s presence in Norway in 1893. Using landmarks as a guide, the team found the exact house and room where Munch painted the work.

“We realized that we were standing on the same floorboards by the same window where the artist himself had looked out to watch the rising Sun, more than 100 years ago,” Pope said.

Munch could have only observed a rising sun at this location in the second week of April, the same time he was documented as being in Germany, or the first five days of September. The September dates coincide with the other accumulated evidence the team found.

“It is pretty clear that Munch started from observations of nature during this visit to Åsgårdstrand, but then he showed his artistic genius by expressing emotional content that goes beyond literal depictions” Olson said. “Knowing the details of the celestial scenes in these paintings only increases our admiration of the artist’s skill at portraying the summer skies of Norway.”

The team’s findings are published in the August 2009 issue of Griffith Observer magazine, and an account of their research in Norway will appear in the August 2009 issue of the Norwegian magazine Astronomi.

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