The Kunsthaus Zürich holds one of the most important groups of works by Edvard Munch anywhere in the world. The acquisition came about thanks to gifts but also, and in particular, to the friendship between the museum’s then director Wilhelm Wartmann and the Norwegian painter. Wartmann staged two major exhibitions of Munch’s work during the artist’s lifetime.
Munch spent periods living in various places in Europe, among other in Paris from 1885 onwards, before finally returning to Norway in 1909. With its light and free brushwork, Music on the Karl Johan Street initially calls to mind the street pictures of the French Impressionists. Unlike Monet or Manet, however, Munch is not primarily interested in the pulsating dynamism of an anonymous mass of people. The sweeping perspective leads from the large figures in the immediate foreground to the crowd pressed against the houses, the military band leaving the street disconcertingly empty behind it. By this means, Munch creates a psychological tension that he pushes to its limits some years later in his celebrated The Scream.
The dominant tones lie, as if on a palette, as flecks next to each other on the lower half of the street: bright yellow, cool blue and red. Sandy yellow bathes the entire picture in a cold light, appearing here and there as a vibrant accent on the façades of the houses. Blue tinges the shaded sections of the buildings on the right side of the street and the cloudless sky. All the colours are subordinated to a cold brightness that transposes the metallic notes of the brass instruments into the atmosphere. Only the red umbrella, added later in the bottom corner, sets a chromatic counterpoint. The profile of a boy appears, seemingly excluded from events around him. As Munch later noted, he was reliving here a memory of his youth in Oslo.