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Friday, February 3, 2023

This 13-Foot-Long Munch Painting Was Hidden From the Nazis in a Norwegian Forest

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A section of Dance on the Beach
The middle section of Dance on the Beach (1906) by Edvard Munch Courtesy of Sotheby’s

After weathering World War II in a barn tucked away in a Norwegian forest, a monumental Edvard Munch painting is heading to the auction block. The 13-foot-long piece, Dance on the Beach (1906), hasn’t been up for sale in 89 years.

The painting once belonged to Curt Glaser, a Jewish art critic, collector and historian based in Berlin. By the 1930s, Glaser and his wife, Elsa, had amassed an extensive private collection of art, which included pieces by Munch—who was a personal friend of the couple—as well as Henri Matisse, Max Beckmann and others. 

Edvard Munch sketch
A sketch of Elsa and Curt Glaser by Edvard Munch (1913) Courtesy of Sotheby’s

In 1933, after the Nazis forced him to leave his position as director of the Berlin State Art Library and seized his apartment, Glaser sold his beloved art and fled the country. He would eventually settle in the United States, where he died in 1943.

Months after Glaser escaped, several of the Munch pieces ended up in the hands of Thomas Olsen, a Norwegian shipping magnate and Munch’s neighbor, per the Art Newspaper’s Anny Shaw. He bought Dance on the Beach and others at an Oslo auction.

In 1940, Germany invaded and occupied Norway. The Nazis had included Munch among artists banned as “degenerate,” so the Olsen family hid Dance on the Beach, an early version of The Scream and other Munch works in a barn deep in the forest to keep them out of Nazi hands, the Observers Dalya Alberge reports.

Dance on the Beach
A view of the 13-foot-long painting Dance on the Beach in its entirety Courtesy of Sotheby’s

“This work is among the greatest of all Expressionist masterpieces remaining in private hands—its shattering emotional impact remains as powerful today as in 1906,” says Simon Shaw, vice chairman of Sotheby’s New York, in a statement.

The massive work of art features a colorful Norwegian landscape filled with swirling dancing figures. Two women in the foreground represent two of Munch’s love affairs—Tulla Larsen and Millie Thaulow—both of which ended in heartbreak, according to Sotheby’s. 

“The former was a turbulent affair that would end in Munch shooting his own hand in the heat of passion, and the latter was his cousin’s wife, and Munch’s first love,” Simon Shaw tells the Observer.

The monumental frieze was created as part of a first-of-its-kind immersive installation in 1906 at renowned director Max Reinhardt’s avant-garde theater in Berlin. Twelve massive canvases were installed on the walls, surrounding viewers and “immersing them in what the artist called ‘images from the modern psyche,’” according to the Observer

Dance on the Beach is the only part of the series that is privately owned. The rest are housed in museums throughout Germany.

On March 1, the piece will be sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London, where it is expected to fetch between $15 and $25 million. As part of a restitution settlement, proceeds from the auction will be split between descendants of the Olsen and Glaser families.

“This exceptional painting is made all the more special due to its extraordinary provenance, a history that has unfolded since it was painted 115 years ago,” says Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s vice chairman and worldwide head of restitution, in the auction house’s statement. “Intertwined in the story of this painting are two families—both leading patrons of Munch.”

In the meantime, the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland is exhibiting 200 works from Glaser’s collection, which it purchased soon after he escaped Germany. In 2020, the museum reached a restitution deal with Glaser’s descendants: The art will remain in the museum in exchange for financial compensation and a special exhibition celebrating Glaser’s legacy.

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