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Student View: An exploration of art, culture, and self in Oslo

Ella Paine ’21 (right) and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway.

This June, Ella Paine ’21 had the opportunity of a lifetime: traveling to Oslo alongside St. Olaf College Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 as part of an effort to learn more about a painting long-rumored to be by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. This research internship, supported by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, gave Paine a front-row seat to an intriguing art mystery — and the people working to solve it. She shares what she learned along the way.

Blog by Ella Paine ’21

“So, tell me … is it a Munch?”

I’m sure that’s the question that you’re hoping this blog post will answer — and it’s the most common question people have asked me since I returned from my eight-day research trip to Oslo, Norway, with Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04.

As you may have heard, St. Olaf College has a bit of a “Munch mystery” on its hands. New evidence suggests that a painting of violinist Eva Mudocci that has been in the college’s collection for years may have been painted by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch — whose iconic painting “The Scream” has been internationally recognized, revered, and reproduced for more than a century.

This painting of violinist Eva Mudocci, long-rumored to be a work by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, is part of the Flaten Art Museum collection.

After nearly two years of research on the painting in St. Olaf’s collection — including scientific analysis of the portrait by experts who have examined other Munch works and a visit to campus this spring by a renowned Munch scholar to observe the painting in person — it was time for a trip to Oslo.

Ella Paine ’21 photographed “The Scream” by Edvard Munch on display in the Munch Museum.

Why Oslo, you ask? Because the city is home to the Munch Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Munch’s work and estate. The museum’s curators and conservators are also the foremost experts on Munch’s work. We needed to spend time with both the work and the experts.

I was approached by Jane for this position this spring, and my areas of study at St. Olaf — studio art, environmental studies, and Nordic studies — made it a perfect fit for me. The professional connections I established in Oslo, and the incredible hands-on experiences I had, led me to discover new goals for my future vocation and career, inspired a deep love of research, and enabled me to delve into Norwegian culture for the first time. Along with research, meetings, and attending lectures, we also got to attend a reception at the U.S. Ambassador to Norway’s residence, see the St. Olaf Choir and St. Olaf Orchestra perform at the Oslo Opera House (where the King of Norway was also in attendance!), and explore the city. 

Ella Paine ’21 (left) and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 upon arrival at the U.S. Ambassador to Norway’s residence.

Although we did make the trip in order to conduct research, connect with international Munch scholars and curators, and experience the city where Edvard Munch lived and worked, we also formed relationships with St. Olaf alumni living in Oslo, met the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, and explored every corner of Oslo that we could get to. Over the course of the week, the trip became much more than simply a search for information surrounding a mysterious painting in the Flaten Art Museum’s collection — it developed into an amazing international experience that I was able to participate in thanks to the Piper Center’s Internship Grant Award program and their wonderful staff.

To give you a glimpse into the experience, here’s a look at a single day from my trip diary that sums up a little work, a little fun, and a whole lot of coffee. 

Wednesday, June 5

4 a.m. Wake up (because jet lag is so! much! fun!) 

The coffee shop just down the street from where Ella Paine ’21 and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 stayed in Grünnerløkka.

7 a.m. Actually wake up and consider going for a run, decide against it for hair-washing purposes, and then make coffee while Jane and I get ready for a day at the Munch Museum library. 

8 a.m. Grab a coffee and a granola/yogurt situation from the coffee shop down the street* while we outline our research questions for the day and assign tasks for each of us to tackle while in the library. After a meeting earlier in the week with Munch Museum curators, conservators, and scholars, we have lots of questions and avenues to pursue with our research, so it’s vital to make a game plan before we get to the museum.

* Oslo, incidentally, has the most AMAZING coffee even at the smallest corner coffee shops. America, you’re doing it wrong — so take a cue from the Norwegians please and thank you!

8:45 a.m. Buy our bus tickets and hop on the first of two buses to get us from Grünnerløkka, the neighborhood where we’re staying, to the Munch Museum. Public transportation in Oslo is clean, quiet, and amazingly efficient, which made using the bus, tram, and metro to get us around the city a breeze!

Some colorful buildings on the streets of Grünerløkka.

9 a.m. Arrive and check in. Then we head up to the library, where we meet with the archivists who help us find the right files and sketchbooks for our research. We spend the morning looking at relevant correspondence between Munch and various others, closely examining a select few of his sketchbooks from the same time that “Portrait of Eva Mudocci” is estimated to have been painted, and discussing questions that came from our research. Looking at Munch’s sketchbooks in person and seeing his process from idea to sketch to finished product is such a unique experience that provides a glimpse into his creative process that otherwise remains mostly hidden from the world. 

Ella Paine ’21 and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 look through Edvard Munch’s sketchbooks at the museum alongside some of the world’s foremost experts on the famed Norwegian artist’s work.

12 p.m. Lunch break! Which, of course, wouldn’t be complete without yet another delicious cappuccino and a massive cardamom bun. 

1 p.m. Back in the library for a few more hours of reading and note taking before they close at 3 p.m.!

The Munch Museet, or Munch Museum, where Ella Paine ’21 and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 spent hours examining the artist’s work and conducting research.

3 p.m. Leave the museum on yet another spotless Oslo bus and take it down to the city center for a walk along Aker Brygge, a bustling wooden boardwalk with shops, food trucks, and gorgeous harbor views. Also along the water is Oslo’s contemporary art museum, Astrup Fearnley, to which we had an amazing visit the day before. We had also visited the paintings hanging in the National Theater as well as the Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum, all of which were educational and fun.

Ella Paine ’21 stands next to a Viking ship during one of the many museum visits she squeezed in during her time in Norway.

3:30 p.m. A requisite gelato stop … because reading and writing is exhausting work, people!

The top of a Stav Kirke that Ella Paine ’21 photographed at Folkemuseum.

4 p.m. A long, leisurely stroll to different parts of the city. Oslo is an amazingly walkable city, and I squeezed time in every day to meander down the streets and admire the wide variety of architecture, from stately pre-war apartment buildings to buildings like the Oslo Opera House that embody current Nordic modernism. We make our way back to our neighborhood, situated north of the Sentrum (Oslo’s downtown), and check out the cute shops and parks. We also grab one last coffee because who needs sleep, anyway?

6 p.m. Dinner at one of the many wonderful restaurants in Oslo. My favorite was Bass, where we dove into an amazing tasting menu that served as the perfect way to celebrate a day of work and play in Oslo. 

9:30 p.m. Back to our apartment for the night! I find time to wind down through journaling, reading, and sending my friends and family plenty of photo updates before trying to get a full night of sleep despite my leftover Minnesota sleep schedule. 

And that’s just one day! I could go on and on describing each amazing element of our trip, but my favorite parts are all centered around the people we met and the places we explored on foot; the art we got to see both in museums and in the form of architecture; and the delicious food and coffee we enjoyed.

An old Norwegian farmhouse at the Folkemuseum.

Travel has been and will continue to be one of my biggest passions, and this opportunity to visit Norway, a country whose language and culture I’ve studied during my entire time as a student at St. Olaf, is up near the top of my “best trips” list. Each new place that I visit offers new opportunities to reflect on the things that make me an individual and reveals the ways in which every human on this planet is, at the end of the day, the same. Language, culture, and location all shape our identity, but crossing over those gaps to reconcile our humanity is just as important as a firm belief in yourself and what you stand for.

Although the purpose of this trip was to research one artist and his relationship to a specific painting during a short time period, I found myself exposed to new ideas and I formed new perspectives about and ways of seeing art that have nothing to do with Munch. This, I think, is the best unintentional benefit of my experience with research.

And although the purpose of this trip was to research one artist and his relationship to a specific painting during a short time period, I found myself exposed to new ideas and I formed new perspectives about and ways of seeing art that have nothing to do with Munch. This, I think, is the best unintentional benefit of my experience with research. During the process of delving into specifics so deeply, I was shown new ways to consider the big picture and examine how I fit into this complex world.