"What a noisy affair," said one scowling scholar from Ncrway, as Edvard Munch's best known image, "Geschrei" (The Cry), managed to out-scream guests sipping Bloody Marys and munching Norwegian goat cheese at Lionel and Sally Epstein's "Munch Brunch" Saturday morning.
The Epsteins own the largest private collection of Munch prints in the United States, and possibly the largest in the world.
The "Munch Brunch" was the final stop before the airport for several Norwegian museum officials and lenders in town all week to celebrate the art, if not the unhappy life, of Edvard Munch, whose paintings and prints have just gone on exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.
They were joined at the Epstein's Northwest Washington home (sometimes called the Embassy of Munch) by several American scholars and collectors as well as curators from the National Gallery who had worked on the show.
Though the Epsteins had loaned about 20 of their 150 works to the exhibition, there wasn't an empty wall in sight as visitors wandered through the spacious rooms and oohed and ashed at the quality of the Epstein holdings, most of which have been promised to the National Gallery.
Also attracting a good deal of attention was Oslo-born Adele Ipsen, now 81 and lifing in Laguna Beach, Calif., the daughter of Aase Noregaard, whom Munch had loved, painted, and wanted to marry.
"Everyone is so wrong about him," she said. "He was so lively and with such a good sense of humor, and he loved us kids. He was unhappy, but he never showed it to us."
Ipsen's father was also Munch's friend and attorney, and Ipsen had with her some old sapia photographs showing her parents with the artist. She also recalled how disappointed he was that she didn't grow up to look more like her mother. "The last time I saw him I was 37, the age of my mother when she died. He opened the door and his face fell. 'My God, you look just like your father!' he said."
Ipsen wasn't the only Munch partisan arguing that the artist's image had been "badly distorted" in recent years. "There was never any question about his being the most gifted artist of his generation in Norway," said Knut Berg, director of the Norwegian National Gallery, which had begun buying the artist's work regularly before Munch was 30. "All that talk about his being unrecognized is b - ," he said. "There is far too much concentration on the literary side and not enought on what a great painter he was."
"Munch was neurotic, but surely not deranged," chief curator of the Munch Museum in Oslo, who returned to the question of whether Munch was psychotic. "He had repeated stipends for study abroad, and the one occasion when he was institutionalized had chiefly to do with his drinking. Five days after he stopped drinking, he was writing perfectly coherent letters to his family and friends again."
Even more outspoken on the subject was Dr. David Abrahamsen, a Norwegian-born New York psychiatrist and Munch collector who has written several books, including "Nixon vs. Nixon" and "The Mind and Death of a Genius," and recently was a consultant on the mental condition of the "Son of Sam."
"The idea that Munch was a deranged Iunatic is absurd," said Abrahamsen, who then began a long diagnosis of the artist's problems, which he ultimately boiled down to "a neurotic personality with traits of genius.
"Anyone who knows about personality structure should know that a psychopath is too narcissistic to be able to sublimate his personality traits. That Munch was able to create such paintings shows that he was able to turn around and sublimate the traits which had made him into a neurotic person."
"Munch was not an emotional tragey," he concluded passionately. "He was able to sublimate his depressive traits and transform them into something beautiful. He was a student of his own psyche. He had the power of mind to free extent, it is impossible for completely psychotic people to make such paintings. But of course, every case must be studied separately."
Filmmaker Cliffore West summed it up, "Munch was his own psychiatrist, and in doing this gave the whole world insight."
When the Epsteins bought their first Munch prints in 1960, they paid "around $200 apiece, a lot of money at the time," said Sally Epstein.
"We'll be auctioning off a group of 10 Munch prints in December which will probably go for upwards of $30,000 and as high as $80,000," said Libby Howe, a visiting auctioneer from Southeby's London, and the first woman auctioneer in Great Britain.
The Munch bunch dispersed full, happy and secure in the knowledge that they'd all see each other again at the auction.