Conservation Norway

Munch frieze at risk

University of Oslo building project could be damaging recently restored paintings

The Sun, 1911-16, is the centrepiece of Munch’s frieze

A monumental frieze made between 1909 and 1916 by Edvard Munch for the Aula (assembly hall) of the University of Oslo was unveiled to great acclaim in 2011 after a lengthy project to conserve and stabilise the 11 monumental Expressionist paintings. However, only 20 months after the project was completed, a Norwegian conservator has warned that harmful dust and debris from the restoration of the building’s exterior may harm the recently treated frieze. The building project is expected to finish in summer 2013.

“Particles from the plaster that is being knocked off the building’s exterior contain alkaline… [and] the particles themselves are like sandpaper,” says Tine Frøysaker, a conservator and professor at the University of Oslo who worked on the Aula frieze. “We’re worried that these particles will harm the paintings.” Frøysaker says that measures have been taken to minimise the amount of dust that can seep in, such as increasing the internal air pressure, but the building is old and impossible to seal. She also says that the paintings are particularly vulnerable because they are not glazed. “They are too big to glaze. Anyway, the glaze would ­interfere with the Aula’s acoustics, and the building is listed because of its amazing acoustics,” she says.

“Work on the exterior should have been done first, before the restoration of the interior, which included the conservation of the paintings, was tackled,” Frøysaker says. However, she does not blame the university or the contractors. “It’s the government’s fault for not releasing the funds earlier. They came too late for the university to change its plans and still meet the deadline for its 200th anniversary celebrations in 2011,” she says.

Frøysaker says the frieze “looked terrible” before the recent treatment, as it had been soiled and cleaned repeatedly over the years. “Running your hands over the surface of the paintings would turn them black,” she says. The biggest visual impairment was the lattice effect created by the accumulation of dirt where the canvases were attached to the frames. A new frame was made.

“We’ll need to assess the paintings again next summer when the building work is complete,” Frøysaker says, adding: “This means we will need more money.”

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