Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

The (Partially-Aborted) Munch Lecture: Part Two

“My fear of life is necessary for me.  Without anxiety and illness I would be a ship without a rudder”

Upon his return to France in 1890 Munch received news of his father’s death.  Far from inured to deaths within his family, he nevertheless must have felt this loss as something of a relief.  He knew the old man had suffered terribly since the death of his wife Laura (Munch’s mother), and that his religious mania had driven him quite literally insane.  As a doctor, Christian Munch was a man familiar with human suffering (indeed, he used to bring the young Edvard on his rounds, further familiarizing the boy with pain, illness and death), and his own was perhaps the least bearable for his inability to acknowledge it.  Christian’s death must also have released Munch from the burden of guilt he lived under while his disapproving father was still alive.  Aware of his son’s growing fame, he was shocked and horrified by the bohemian ideals that his son embraced and promoted through his paintings and writings.  His son was a purveyor of immorality and atheism, and it broke the old man’s heart.

Munch spent that year in Saint Cloud, a western suburb of Paris, where he began to consider seriously not only his role but his responsibilities as a painter.  It was all well and good for his reputation and growing fame to shock the public as he had in Berlin, but the paintings he produced must have continuity in meaning to keep with the work he had already produced.  He strove for an art that was entirely pure and honest – where concern for detail and realism would succumb to his own forceful, direct type of Impressionism, creating scenes at once unique (as if seen in a moment of intense, personal emotion) and at the same time universal.  It was at this time that he wrote in his journal what has come to be known as the Saint Cloud Manifesto, an excerpt from which reads: “No longer would interiors, people who read and women who knit be painted… There should be living people who breath and feel, suffer and love… People should understand the sanctity, the grandeur of it, and would take off their hats as if in a church… I should paint a number of such pictures.”

“Night in St. Cloud”, 1890, depicts the artist in a moonlit reverie, on the cusp of defining his artistic goals.

Rather than returning  to Norway, Munch want back to Berlin in the early 1890s, the scene of his first large exhibition and succès de scandale .  Here he began his exploration of another germane contemporary theme: the portrayal of urban life as conducive to a sense of alienation; the displacement of feelings resulting from anomie (or the breakdown of social bonds between the individual and community); and the de-personalization and loss of individuality within cities  and resulting from the Industrial Age.  The term Neurasthenia had been coined as early as 1829 to label a mechanical weakness of the nerves, but was made popular in 1869 by the American psychiatrist George M. Beard and re-branded to refer specifically to “the compromised urban body” with symptoms including nervous exhaustion, chronic fatigue and physical complaints resulting in over-population – the price paid by the human soul to eke out life in the urban jungle, wherein the conveniences of modern living and thousands of fellow humans brought on a deep sense of anonymity and loss of self.

“Evening on Karl Johan Street”, 1892

Such a theme was not only new to visual art, but gave voice to a new generation of city dwellers reaping the fruits of the Industrial Revolution.  It also foreshadowed what were to become some of Munch’s most popular and common subjects depicting the horror vacui of existence (the two examples of “Melancholy” of the previous post quietly evince this).

In Berlin, Munch fell in with a new group of literary bohemians knows as Zum Schwarzen Ferkel (translated as “The Black Piglet” for the image that adorned the cafe’s wooden sign).  Headed by the Swedish play write,  novelist, and sometimes-painter August Strindberg(whose own paintings caused some uproar in Berlin) and the Polish novelist Stanislav Przybyszewski, this group was even more dogmatic in its ideals, particularly those pertaining to free love.  As Sigmund Freud was developing his ground-breaking  theories of sexuality and the unconscious, Zum Schwarzen Ferkel was also placing great importance on sex, dreams and irrationality along with interest in alchemy (particularly in Strindberg’s case) and Satanism (with Przybyszewski).

A lithograph by Munch of August Strindberg from 1896

Munch’s watercolor and charcoal drawing of Stanslav Przybyszewski, amidst human bones symbolizing death, from 1895

Concomitant to these trends of fee love (or as a result of them), a new strain of Feminism was emerging in Northern Europe during the turn of the century.  The social and economic effects of the Industrial Revolution actually further solidified women’s roles as unemployed housewives while improving the overall financial situations for the average middle-class family.  While many new jobs were created through industrialization, much of the work was preformed by men: mining, machinery, factory work – even farm work, once shared with women, was becoming mechanized and the labor being turned over to men.  As a result of job creation, the average family’s income grew, allowing for the woman of the household to focus on domestic work and child-rearing.  Amidst this relegation of women to lives of domesticity; amidst stirrings of the free love movement; and amidst Freud’s new theories of women as independent sexual beings with individual needs and volition, women began to challenge their sexual dependence on men.

Much of Freud’s interpretations were nevertheless highly sexist in tone: with some exceptions (see Freud’s case studies of The Rat Man and The Wolf Man), hysteria was seen as a Victorian by-product of sexual repression specific to women – a female disease cured by hospitalization and masturbatory techniques such as the use of primitive vibrators.  The women of the Chistiania and Berlin bohemian societies sought total sexual liberation through their behavior and lifestyle.  Although initially supported by the artists and writers within these counter-cultural groups, the open relationships and polyamorous  arrangements of free love proved challenging to even the staunchest of its male supporters, pathologized by the very men who initially advocated it.

The etching “Under the Yoke” of 1896 depicts an insouciant woman – bold and free in her nakedness – as a male approaches her “under the yoke” (meaning “under a great burden”).

The male backlash against women’s free love was swift and desperate, carried out through feeble, quasi-scientific arguments.  Strindberg saw an acute threat to males in regards to social stability and emasculation (this coming from a renowned misogynist and an even more renowned cuckold).  Darwinian theory stressed the role of women as vessels of reproduction, hypothesizing a risk of a weakening of the species resulting from women’s equality and sexual liberation.  Among other artists, Munch especially gave voice to the eternal conflict between the sexualized and de-sexualized woman as perceived by men.  The phenomenon was defined in psychoanalytic terms by Freud as “The Madonna-Whore Complex” which, in short, dictates that while  it is the virgin – pure and untouched by another – that man wishes to marry, it is the whore (or the sexually experienced woman) that he wishes to fuck.  Munch did a painting (and then several other versions in lithographic form) titled “Madonna” which acknowledges this conundrum from both sides: woman as a sensual lover, seductress, and possible bearer of disease (note the corpse-like eyes and deathly pallor – venereal disease will be discussed at length in the next entry), while emphasizing her role as reproductive vessel  and conduit between generations, all the while wearing a halo (in the painted version) to underscore her divinity as suggested by the title.

The 1895 painted version, with its emphasis on the divine, virginal halo, despite the woman’s being in the act of copulation.

The lithographic version (of which there are many variations) stresses the woman as a conduit of life, love and death with her corpse-like eyes, the border of spermatozoa, and the unhappy outcome of of the act of copulation in the form of a pathetic fetus on the lower left.

Around this time Munch became acquainted with the German Zoologist Ernst Haekel’s “Law of Substance”,  or Monism.  The theory of Monism dictates that there exists only one basic substance that comprises all things, that reality consists of a single element.  In this way, all matter is indistinguishable: organic and in organic, living and dead, matter and energy, body and soul.  This is to say that there are elusive, erudite, abstract theories (i.e. the soul) that are as real, and made from the same stuff, as any physical object.  Munch took to this atheistic view of immortality, as it implies that the soul lives on in another form.  He saw much of our (and especially his own) matter as “nervous mass” that will pass into new combinations upon decomposition (matter becomes new matter, energy becomes new energy, and the cycle is endlessly repeated).

This theory is illustrated in many of his works of this time, including the lithographic version of Madonna above, with its depiction of the endlessly repetitive cycle of life, death and birth.  Below, in the drawing Metabolism, skulls and bones lying just beneath the ground hover over a woman’s corpse which in turn sprouts new life forms, culminating in a tree (an important symbol of life for Munch) and a young woman who, belly big with child, continues the cycle.

A telling diary entry from 1892 describes Munch’s  resonance with the theory of Monism, and is worth quoting at length:

It would be a pleasurable experience to sink into, to unite with… that everlasting, ever-stirring earth… I would become one with it, the plants and trees would grow up out of my rotting corpse… I would live on… That is eternity… A body does not vanish.  Its substance is transformed, converted.  Nobody can say where the spirit goes to.”

While the theory of Monism remained for Munch a comforting possibility for a vague, organic sort of afterlife, it did little to abate his very mixed feelings surrounding women during this tumultuous time of sexual upheaval, and works incorporating Monistic theory (such as the Madonna lithograph) were also fraught with anti-feminist, Darwinian notions of women as simple vessels of reproduction, despite their tremendous sexual pull.  In The Three Stages of Woman (1894), Munch attempted to illustrate the distinct milestones within a woman’s life: the budding virgin in the process of sexual awakening; the free, fertile, sensual being, naked in her glory and capable of giving life as well as taking it away; and the dried-up widow, her sexual organs now useless, awaiting death.

Note the virginal woman facing the sea, frequently interpreted as a vast womb, while the widow seems resigned to a sexless fate.  The male on the far right seems defeated,  quietly exiting the picture frame.

“The Voice” of 1893 depicts the first of Munch’s stages of woman.  A young woman, set within Norway’s Borre Forest during the early summer’s midnight sun, stands at the cusp of sexual awakening. Dressed in white, she at once leans forward and pulls back, as lovers set out on a moonlit boat ride behind her and the moon casts a phallic beam that further emphasizes her awakening desire.

The Three Stages of Woman is an example in a symbolic format of man as a passive victim tossed hither and thither by by the inception, fruition , and decline of woman’s sexuality.  In contrast to woman’s changing  sexual role, that of the male in Munch’s work remains constant – delicate and subject to bitter jealousy and lonesome abandonment.  Two examples are shown below:

Of Ashes from 1894, Munch wrote “I felt our love lying on the ground like a heap of ashes.”  Love is like fire, he maintained, and it consumes until nothing is left.  Here he depicts the end of an affair with both parties in some state of suffering, though the male is clearly taking it much harder.  He is reduced to an ignominious, defeated shape on the lower left, unable to face the world (note the ‘jealous’ tinge of green in his skin) while the woman, also distraught, rises from this heap in full possession of her sexual powers (the long red hair retains its grasp on the man while the triangle of red symbolizing desire runs like a slit up to her breasts).

In Separation of 1896, a similar scene takes place.  This time, the woman (now in a virginal white as if to absolve her from all blame) leaves a man as she walks toward the sea.  Again, it is her hair that retains its hold on him.  It should be noted that Munch painted several versions of both of these paintings, as he was to do with the majority of his imagery over his lifetime (including printed versions).  We will discuss this propensity for obsessionally re-painting an image in a later entry.

Arguably the greatest example of Man’s utter capitulation to Woman’s sexuality is the 1895 painting Vampire, of which Stanislaw Przybyszewski wrote:

“The man spins around and around in infinite depths, without a will, powerless.  And he rejoices that he can spin like that… without volition.  But he cannot rid himself of the pain, and the woman will always sit there, will bite eternally with the tongues of a thousand vipers, with a thousand venomous teeth.”

Munch originally titled the painting (which was followed by several lithographic and woodcut versions) both “Love and Pain” and “Man Kissing Woman on the Neck.”  It was at Pryzbyszewski’s urging that he retitled the work.  That Munch willingly changed the title (which gives the painting a more malevolent air, wherein there can be no argument who is the aggressor and who is the victim) is a clear example of Munch’s pandering to the fashions of the day – in this case misogyny and fear.  Years later he shrugged the incident off, writing “It is in reality only a woman who kisses a man on the neck…  (but) it was the time of Ibsen…  if people were really bent on reveling in Symbolist eeriness and called the idyll Vampire, why not?”  It is also clear that Munch was pandering to something of a vampire craze that was sweeping Europe in the mid to late 19th century (much like we have our own ebb and flow of vampire literature to this day, from Anne Rice to Twilight) with the publication of Carmilla by Sheridon le Fanu in 1870 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.

That Munch so often presented these woman-destroyers with red hair both tapped into ancient myths and contemporary depictions of redheaded women as evil or destructive (e.g. the titular vampire in le Fanu’s Carmilla, or the ancient Greek myth that, upon death, redheaded women return to life as vampires).  It was also an eerie foreshadowing of his most destructive(and in many ways last) serious affair a decade later.  We can conclude that Munch was never totally reactionary nor was he totally misogynistic, but somewhere in between, and only too comfortable to pander to his milieu in regards to the vilification of women within his imagery, or to the spirit of morbidity in general.

Munch could depict women as both inimical sexual predators or humbly, as gentle, dignified individuals (especially in his portraits).  Contrast Beast of 1901 with Woman in Blue (Frau Barth) of twenty years later below:

The Beast, 1901

Woman in Blue (Frau Barth), 1921

Nevertheless, his leanings toward the former depictions of women in a more fearsome (if not fully misogynistic) light during the turn-of-the-century took hold with the wildly popular concept of the femme fatale, originating in the climate of free love and sexual liberation, and exacerbated exponentially by fears of venereal disease in general and syphilis in particular.  This will be discussed at the beginning of the next post, wherein a new, smouldering beauty emerges on the scene in Zum Schwarzen Ferkel.

This is the end of part two.  If you actually made it this far, I am hugely flattered and beg you to leave a comment (even if it is negative).


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One Response

  1. Geraint ap Iorwerth says:


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