The Dance of Life, 1899
The American critic of Munch, Frederick B. Deknatel, has interpreted the allegory: "The stages are innocence, experience or lasciviousness, and disillusionment or withdrawal from life; in each stage she is inaccessible to man." Munch himself explained to Ibsen: "She is woman of dreams, woman of lust, and woman the nun."
Sensuality, personified by the nude, opposes more spiritual aspects suggested by the girl in white and the resigned figure in black. The significance of the young girl eludes exact definition, and in the artist's mind possibly combined elements of both nurse and child. The moon, in the etched and painted versions, is a frequent apparition in the visions of Munch. In this allegory her reflection, surely a symbol of the male, suggests the physical relation of man to the trinity of mother, mistress and child.
Three other lithographs further illustrate Munch's composite woman. The Young Model perversely presents a youthful counterpart to the temptress. The subject was first painted in 1886 as Puberty and appears again in an etching of 1902 as Night. Critics have observed similarities to Felicien Rops' Le dernier amour de Don Juan. The implications of The Young Model are disquieting. The young girl sits upon a bed. An artificial light casts a strong, looming shadow but reveals mercilessly the innocence of her face. Her expression, aged beyond her years, invites compassion. A new awareness has transformed the child.
The Young Model, Munch's first lithograph, is little more than the reproduction of a drawing. The Madonna offers a more graphic symbol. The figure appears as eternal womanhood, a mater dolorosa revealed in ecstasy. The image is passionate but not romantic: the woman, albeit haloed, is not an object of devotion. The embryo and the fluid border suggest the equivocal irony born of a scientific age. Significantly, the pose recalls the central figure of Woman. The dichotomy of the carnal and the immaculate is, of course, Munch's own. The lithograph itself is one of his most important works in any medium and, in its beauty and technical perfection, a masterpiece of modern printmaking.
The madonna breathes in a less ambiguous air in the portrait. The subject is Eva Mudocci, the Polish violinist, who also appears in The Violin Concert. Elsewhere Munch casts her as Salome but here she represents ideals of virtue and beauty. The face is untroubled, the features in repose. Tresses of hair frame the face and fill the composition. It is curious that for Munch, as for Fuseli, female hair seems to have had some special connotation. The power of sex coils through it -- attractive in this portrait, menacing in the Vampire, binding in Man and Woman.
Love, tragically for Munch a basic antagonism between the sexes, is the subject of the Vampire and of Jealousy. In the Vampire, man falls victim to the consequences of his desire. He is trapped and enveloped by woman, the witch, who like a mother or like death smothers by her embrace. Strindberg would have recognized this heroine as man's necessary, demoniac destroyer. "I love her, and she loves me, and together we hate each other with a wild hatred born of love."
In Jealousy, the central figure of Woman reappears, this time accompanied by two men -Munch and, bearded, his friend Przybyczewsky. Strindberg, in his appreciation of Munch, has specifically described the melodramatic triangle. "Jealousy, sacred feeling of cleanliness of the soul which abhors to mingle with another through the intermediary of woman. Jealousy, legitimate selfishness, born from the instinct to preserve self and race... He who is jealous says to his rival: 'Go, imperfect one, you fan the fires that I have lit. From her mouth you shall breathe and drink my blood. You will remain my slave since my spirit shall rule you through this woman who has become your master.' "
Attraction, Two Beings and Man and Woman describe a less antipathetic relationship. There is no conflict between weak and strong; both man and woman appear equal. The etching presents two lovers facing the sea. Each stands alone, they do not touch. In the lithograph the couple, also on a beach, turn to each other. Their alliance is intimate; they are linked by affection. Munch 'places the two figures far in front and frames their profiles against the familiar, tumultuous landscape. In the woodcut, the antithesis of Vampire, the juxtaposition has become completely symbolic. Munch's interest is formal; he employs his favorite opposition of profile and full face. The skeins of hair lightly veil the floating head. But by far the most lyric representation of man and woman is the tender moment of The Kiss.
Sickness, suffering and death accompany the themes of love and anxiety. Munch's elder sister Sophie had died when he was fourteen and her last months haunt several paintings and prints. The etching is nearest to the painted versions: the pathetic victim of tuberculosis, the despairing aunt, the chair and dresser, the medicines. The lithograph concentrated only upon the child's head. The first version of the painting ( 1886) is perhaps Munch's finest early work. His description of the painting can complement the two prints.
"My first impression when I saw the sick child -- the pale head with bright red hair against the white pillow -- disappeared as I worked... I had stressed the chair with the glass too much, it distracted from the head. When I examined the picture I saw only the surroundings of the room. Should I eliminate them? ...In a way the head had become the image. Undulating lines appeared in the picture -- peripheries -- with the head as center... Exhausted, I finally stopped. I had captured my first impression, the trembling lips, the transparent skin, the tired eyes... In The Sick Child I broke new roads, it was a transformation in my art. Most of what I later did was given birth in this picture."
Munch's description, it must be remembered, refers not to the lithograph of 1896 but to the painting of the previous decade. "Undulating lines" appear more expressively in other prints and, in his development as an artist, the print has neither the significance nor the importance of the painting.
The Sick Child, although not typical, is the most subtle of Munch's lithographs in color. The delicate, over-all adjustments of the four colors and the technical triumph of the printing bring him, for a moment, close to the French lithographers. The drama lies in the subject itself, not in Munch's treatment. The mood is poignant, the child's condition hopeless, the illness inevitably fatal.
The effect of Sophie's illness upon the family is the subject of The Death Chamber, a less literal but much more characteristic work. The contours of the figures are arranged arbitrarily to give visual form to the psychological tensions of the situation. The solid blacks are massed at maximum contrast to the white of the paper. The figures are dramatically posed as if on a stage. An armchair, its back to the spectator, hides the dying child. The bearded father faces front and the mourning relatives arrange themselves in two groupings joined by the turning figure of Munch himself.
Edvard Munch, Impressionism, Edvard Munch Biography, Munch Paintings, Munch Drawings, The Scream, Ash 1894, Bathing Man, Mermaid on the Shore, The Murderer, Separation, The Dance of Life, Madeban Auf Dem Pier, Jealousy, Young Girl on a Jetty, The Girls on the Pier, Four Girls on a Bridge, The Kiss, Girl with Red Hair, Lady From the Sea, Madonna 1895, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, Summer Night at the Beach, Girl on a Bridge, Summer Night at Asgarstrand, Vampire, White and Red, Madonna 1894, Bathing Man, The Sun, Moonlight
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