My Favourite Painting: Matthew Parris

The journalist, presenter and erstwhile politician chooses a lesser-known work by Edvard Munch.

Matthew Parris on View from Nordstrand by Edvard Munch

“I first saw this picture at the age of 21, in a gift shop attached to the Munch Museum in Oslo. Apart from his famous The Scream painting, I knew almost nothing about Munch and would not have recognised the term Expressionism. But this painting expressed! I bought a framed reproduction and it still hangs in my house.

“In its way, the painting is a kind of scream from the forest, but a scream not of despair, but of exuberant individuality. Among conifers, only the larch goes russet in autumn, bare in winter and golden in spring. In that painting’s forest, the tree is the gay eccentric in the room. But there’s something baleful about the offshore islands. I have planted more than 50 larches on our land.”

Matthew Parris is a political writer, broadcaster and former MP. His new book, Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma, is out this autumn.

John McEwen on Munch and the painting

In 1929, Munch, by then considered equal to such masters of Expressionism as van Gogh and Gauguin, read the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) and understood ‘why people so often have compared my pictures to him’. Kierkegaard insisted on passionate individuality, as opposed to the majority’s anonymous conformity. He likened it to riding a wild stallion, rather than falling asleep in a hay cart.

Munch thought marriage inimical to art. The years before View from Nordstrand marked his infatuation with Tulla Larsen, who was six years his junior. The beautiful red-headed daughter of the foremost wine merchant of Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1924) led him a not-so-merry dance through Europe, as he insisted on a platonic marriage. When she wrote from Berlin to say she was dying, he proposed. She paid his ticket, but it was a hoax.

Munch returned to Norwegian seclusion, painting forest and fjord scenes at Nord-strand, south of Kristiania. The larch is a deciduous exception among conifers; View from Nordstrand celebrates the contrast. In Nordic folklore, you wear or burn larch for protection against enchantment or evil spirits. Munch wrote: ‘Nature is not something that can be seen by the eye alone — it lies also within the soul, in pictures seen by the inner eye.’

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Herbert Read cited Munch even more than van Gogh, demonstrating what his fellow art historian Wilhelm Worringer called the ‘uncanny pathos’ of the North. In 1931, Glasgow and Edinburgh held the first Munch retrospective in Britain. Concurrently, Read was professor of Fine Arts at the University of Edinburgh. He championed Munch until the end, deploring England’s neglect of him. Amends have since been made.