Disputed Munch at Leopold Museum
Leading expert has “severe doubts” about work lent to Vienna museum by Norwegian collector
By Clemens Bomsdorf. Museums, Issue 230, December 2011
Published online: 15 December 2011
The attribution of a painting on show in Vienna’s Leopold Museum as work by Edvard Munch has been questioned by a Norwegian expert in the artist’s work, who is the author of the Munch catalogue raisonné, published in 2009. Two years ago, when Two Children on the Beach, around 1904, was first displayed in the Austrian museum, an accompanying caption said that it was “attributed to Munch”. Now the painting, which belongs to a leading Norwegian collector, is displayed with no such caveat.
Gerd Woll, the author of the Munch catalogue raisonné, and the former senior curator at Munch Museet in Oslo, says she “very much doubts” the work is by Munch. When researching the catalogue raisonné, Woll was asked to include the painting several times, but declined. “When I saw the painting I was doubtful, and where there are severe doubts a work should not be included,” she says. “We were even threatened with a court case if we didn’t include it,” she recalls. Woll questions the painting’s authorship because: “There is no documentation, such as provenance or exhibition history, connecting this painting to Munch and the subject has not been recognised in any other work by Munch. Technical analysis shows similarities to paintings by Munch, but [this] is insufficient evidence.”
The painting on show in the Leopold Museum comes from the collection of Håkon Mehren. (The Leopold Museum’s caption states that it is from a private collection.) Mehren is confident that the painting is by the artist. Mehren was a close friend of the late collector Rolf Stenersen and regarded him as a father figure and tutor. Stenersen owned a large collection of Munch’s work, founded the Stenersen Museum and wrote a biography of the artist. “The work is definitely a Munch. He only painted himself as a child twice: once in Eventyrskogen [around 1903], which hangs in the National Gallery [in Oslo], and once in this work,” Mehren says.
Mehren bought Two Children on the Beach about 30 years ago, he says, but could not say who previously owned the work. Mehren admits that documentation of the painting’s provenance is lacking, but cites instead the technical analysis made by the Doerner Institute in Munich, which reinforces his confidence in the work. When approached by The Art Newspaper, Andreas Burmester, the director of the Doerner Institute, declined to discuss the analysis on the grounds that the institute never comments on its work to third parties.
Franz Smola, a curator at the Leopold Museum, shares Mehren’s confidence that the painting is by Munch. Smola confirms that when first shown in “Edvard Munch and the Uncanny” at the Leopold in 2009, it was only said to be “attributed to Munch”. The curator explained that since then a new analysis has been done “where fingerprints were examined”. This, he says, confirmed the thesis that it is a “real Munch”.
Smola was referring to an analysis carried out by Peter Paul Biro, a Canadian art expert who runs Forensic Studies in Art. Biro is suing the New Yorker magazine for questioning the validity of his methods: the publication is counter-filing, asking the judge to dismiss the case. Mehren does not use Biro’s findings to support his opinion that the painting is by Munch.
“I have not put the work up for sale, but might do so in the future,” Mehren says. “With the money, I would like to establish an art foundation.” Paintings by the Norwegian artist have been sold at auction for prices ranging from $1.6m to $33m in the past four years.
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