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The Women Who Inspired Edvard Munch's Paintings, Love and Pain: An analysis

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Edvard Munch (1863-1944) | Via National Library of Norway
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) | Via National Library of Norway

“No longer would interiors, people who knit and read be painted. There should be living people who breathe and feel, suffer and love,” declared Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) in his frequently cited St. Cloud Manifesto of (1890). The then 26-year-old artist wanted “to represent love, hate, longing, despair, and dreamy erotic connections as if they were sacred subjects,” which led to “his larger strategy of subtly transforming the profane into the eternal.”


The recent loss of his father was the latest event in a string of personal tragedies that had already plagued the young man’s life to date. From untimely deaths to debilitating illness to mental health issues, Munch and his family were dealt an unfortunate hand marked by pain and loss. A doomed romance only added insult to injury. And so the artist decided to use those experiences to explore and document their effects on his psyche in a distinct and novel way.


Over the next three years, while residing in the Parisian suburb of St. Cloud, the artist created some of his most well-known Symbolist motifs, placing emphasis on his emotions and/or ideas over the realistic description of the natural world. The works dealt with “scenes of contemplation and desire acted out in tight, even claustrophobic interiors. Dark, moonlit spaces silhouetted by a cruciform window frame became one of his signature motifs at this moment.”


 "Jealousy" (1895) by Edvard Munch
"Jealousy" (1895) by Edvard Munch

Exhibiting his works in different nearby cities created enough buzz for the artist to open a solo show at the prestigious Berlin Artists Association in 1892. It featured a series of six scandalously provocative paintings — including early versions of “Kiss” (1897), “Jealousy” (1895), and “Despair” (1894) collectively titled Study for a Series: Love. The show was open for one week before members of the conservative association voted to close it down.


"The Scream" (1893) by Edvard Munch
"The Scream" (1893) by Edvard Munch

Still, seven days proved to be enough time for the controversial show to make the artist a sensation in modernist circles, and led to exhibition openings throughout Germany. Riding the wave of his success, Munch made the strategic decision to relocate to Berlin in 1893, where he expanded on the hit series and, in the process, created some of his most celebrated works. The most famous and instantly recognizable of these is “The Scream.”


A diary entry excerpt he wrote before painting the piece is often shown next to it in art museums:


"I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature."


"Death in the Sick Room" (1896) by Edvard Munch
"Death in the Sick Room" (1896) by Edvard Munch

By 1902, the artist was ready to exhibit his semi-autobiographical 22-piece collection of works called The Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death. It included the six works from his aforementioned earlier exhibit and featured new pieces, such as “Madonna” (1894), “Angst” (1896), “Melancholy” (1894), and “Death in the Sickroom” (1896). Together, the collection transmuted his “emotions concerning love, sexuality and death into universal symbols.”


"Vampire" (1895) by Edvard Munch
"Vampire" (1895) by Edvard Munch

But one of the more striking works in the collection is ”Love and Pain,” otherwise known as “Vampire,” created between 1893 and 1894. In it, a red-haired woman can be seen sinking her mouth into the neck of a disconsolate-looking lover, her tresses streaming over him like poisonous tendrils. The theme of a forlorn man and a dominating woman fascinated Munch, and it may have something to do with a woman called Millie Thaulow.


“His first sexual experience apparently took place in the summer of 1885, when he was 21, with Millie Thaulow, the wife of a distant cousin,” writes Arthur Lubow for the Smithsonian. “They would meet in the woods near the charming fishing village of Aasgaardstrand. He was maddened and thrilled while the relationship lasted and tormented and desolate when Millie ended it after two years.”


"Ashes" (1894) by Edvard Munch
"Ashes" (1894) by Edvard Munch

In another major painting called “Ashes” (1894), scholars have noted that a woman who bares a notable resemblance to Thaulow confronts the viewer, her white dress unbuttoned to reveal a red slip, her hands raised to the sides of her head while a distraught lover holds his head in despair.” Others, however, have argued that the works in Frieze are not about any one person, rather they are about the universal human experience and the forces or nature.


Indeed, Munch was raised poor in the working-class tenements of Kristiania (Oslo) at a time of great social and political change in northern Europe. He had lost both of his parents as well as his sister Sophie to tuberculosis by the age of twenty-five. Himself in frail health and suffering from depression throughout his life, the artist created “art that addressed universal conditions of modern life as distilled from memories of his troubled past.”


Vampire in the Forest (1916-18) by Edvard Munch
Vampire in the Forest (1916-18) by Edvard Munch

And yet, it’s plausible and, more importantly, probable that Munch’s tumultuous love life inspired many of the works in this collection, including “Love and Pain.” But Millie was not the only romantic influence on his art during this period. On a visit to Kristiania in 1898, Munch met the wealthy daughter of the town’s leading wine merchant who, at the age of 29, was still unmarried. Her name was Tulla Larsen and she would become both his muse and his torment.


According to Munch’s often conflicting personal accounts, “he first set eyes on Larsen when she arrived at his studio in the company of an artist with whom he shared the space,” when she began to aggressively pursue him. “In his telling, their affair began almost against his will. He fled — to Berlin, then on a yearlong dash across Europe. She followed. He would refuse to see her, then succumb.”


"The Dance of Life" (1900) by Edvard Munch
"The Dance of Life" (1900) by Edvard Munch

Their relationship is the subject of “The Dance of Life” (1899 - 1900), which is set on a midsummer's night in Norway, in a seaside village where Munch once trysted with Millie Thaulow and where, in 1897, he had purchased a tiny cottage. At the center, a vacant-eyed male, that represents Munch, dances with a woman in a red dress (some suggest that it’s the infamous Millie). Their eyes do not meet, and their stiff bodies are at an unhappy distance.


On the left, a golden-haired Larsen in a white dress is pictured smiling and content. But another version of Larsen on the right appears dressed in a black gown, “her countenance as dark as the garment she wears, her eyes downcast in bleak disappointment.” Behind them, on the healthy green lawn, other joyful couples are seen dancing and enjoying their night. The work is the last installment in Munch’s The Frieze of Life — A Poem about Life, Love and Death.


"Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen" (1905) by Edvard Munch | Via Munch Museum
"Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen" (1905) by Edvard Munch | Via Munch Museum

When Munch and Larsen did finally part ways, after a quarrel that somehow — the full story is unknown — led to the artist shooting himself with a revolver and losing part of a finger on his left hand, he marked the end of the relationship by literally sawing his "Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen" (1905) in two. Despite fleeing the women across borders and doing his best to avoid the marriage she so vehemently sought, he took it as betrayal when she married someone else.


The depression that Munch suffered from since childhood and exacerbated by alcohol abuse got worse and he had a mental breakdown in 1908, which led to him being hospitalized. Though he recovered, Munch never married or had any children. "Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married,” wrote the artist about himself in third person.


Nevertheless, love or his attempts at it, inspired some of Edvard Munch’s most famous works.


Feature Stories

VOL. 22 

ART of LOVE

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