Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

The (Partially Aborted) Munch Lecture: Part 3

In continuing the discussion of Munch as either a) paranoid misogynist, b) panderer to the rising trend of woman-bashing or c) a bit of both, it is notable to stress  again the paradox between his genuine paranoia; his frailty arising from his several heartbreaks and deaths of his mother and sister;  and his keen perception of cultural and literary trends instilling misogynistic fears in the (primarily male) public.  It is probably most accurate to accept that there was a bit of both at play: his delicate emotional constitution certainly gave him reason to hold the opposite sex with a certain degree of fear, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that (as has already been discussed) he had the capacity to portray the females in his life individuals and not types; with affection and sympathy rather than fear and contempt.  His more inimical portrayals were of a generic, archetypal nature: the dominant, devouring female not modeled directly on any individual, though inspired by several.  A particularly poignant image from 1893 of his sister Laura – unusual in its sad, individualistic portrayal of a woman – shows one of his last surviving family members succumbing to the family trait of madness.

Melancholy (Laura Munch)

Here he portrays his sister within a claustrophobic but warm and womb-like interior, sheltered (at least temporarily) from the frigid Nordic winter outside.  Hope seems to creep into the picture as life blood spreads across the table from a spring-time flower, emphasizing the theme of regeneration and metabolism.  Whatever was to happen to Laura, it seemed to say, it was all a part of the larger cycle of life and death.  She was ultimately hospitalized permanently in the asylum Gaustad.  Located near Oslo’s main slaughterhouse, the screams from both could be heard from the same elevated walkway depicted in The Scream and several other works (and yes, we will be getting to The Scream in the next installment).

After Munch’s death in 1944 many Americans, to whom Munch’s work was still relatively new (he’d had only one US show in his lifetime – in Pittsburgh of all places), applied the stringent Freudian readings so popular during the mid 20th century.  The first English language publication appeared in The Journal of Psychiatry in 1954 by Drs. Stienberg and Weiss, who bandied about such Freudian platitudes as “deprivations in childhood” due to the losses of his mother and sister, “fear of women” and “castration anxiety” (just look at those phallic moonbeams.)  While there is no doubt that the literature presenting Munch to the American public for the first time was an overly simplistic, narrow-minded product of its time, further examination of the writings of his day show a slant that does lend some credence to these mid-century Freudian readings.  The reason for this is that Munch himself was well acquainted with the ideas as they emerged (and which were old hat in 1954 America), and in many respects was chronicling the theories of his time along with his own life and the anxieties that made up his milieu and zeitgeist.

In The Kiss from the mid 1890s, Munch portrayed what appears to be the tender embrace of a couple before an open window.  He reworked this image many times, both in paintings and as prints.  It is pertinent here to examine a woodcut version, done only a few years later, in which the couple seem to have fused into a single entity.  There is no longer a him and a her, but a single being.

There are different means of interpretation here: the romanticized fusing of a man and a woman losing themselves in the act of love, or the negative side of the same coin -love as the dissolution of the self and loss of individuality.  It is unclear which version it was that August Stridberg wrote his fabulously loathsome interpretation of the scene “…the fusion of two beings, the smaller of which, shaped like a carp, seems on the point of devouring the larger, as is the habit of vermin, microbes, vampires and women.”  The reference to germs and disease was not a random allusion.  The horrors of venereal disease played tremendously into the contemporary archetype of woman as a harbinger of death, and syphilis in particular was being equated (with great panic and urgency) with women’s emerging sexuality.

Felician Rops (whose “The Greatest Love of Don Juan” we saw earlier), created his etching “Satan” in 1865, which depicts syphilis as a towering, skeletal prostitute laying waste to Paris.

The fear surrounding syphilis that gripped Europe in the 19th century cannot be overemphasized.  In addition to pouring gasoline on the flames of misogyny, it came to be equated with xenophobia, antisemitism and, in America, with foreignness in general.  D.H. Lawrence wrote that the rise of syphilis reshaped entirely any form of sexual expression and engagement for men, replacing its pleasures with fear.  Of course, at the risk of stating the obvious, it was a two-way street, and although its spread was due mainly to prostitution, it was transferred by both sexes.  Untreated, it resulted in leprosy-like deformation and disfigurement, and ultimately madness (none of which stopped Munch’s friend Stanislaw Przybyszewski from squarely placing the blame in writing “The tragedy of mankind is to be destroyed by women”).  While the diseased, sunken features in Munch’s Madonna are suggestive of the affliction,  Munch’s interpretations were numerous, varied, and diplomatic.  The painting Inheritance of 1899 carries his common concern with rebirth and the endless cycle of life, death, and new life, depicting the seeds of the disease as passed on to a new generation.  While it speaks to Munch’s writings on his own fear of inheriting both a weak physical constitution and insanity, the painting reads as universal: a syphilitic repicturing of the Madonna and Child wherein both sexes and generations are shown as victims.

Admittedly, it is not surprising that Przybyszewski wrote such a harsh, one-sided indictment of female-kind, and we certainly know that he was not alone in his thinking (especially with all of the cockamamie Darwinian theories sprouting up that threatened women’s equality would result in an enervation of the species).  It was at this time that the femme fatale became a popular archetype in bohemian society – the highly sexualized woman whose volition and appetites devoured the hearts of men unprepared for such bold, confident prowess.  It is an archetype that lasted through the mid 20th century, appearing in the noir novels of David Goodis, Dorothy B. Hughs and Raymond Chandler, right through to modern films like Body Heat, Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.

Perhaps the most celebrated femme fatale of fin de siecle Berlin was Pzybyszewski’s wife Dagny Juel.  By all accounts a force of nature, she was reported to be otherworldly and ethereal in her beauty and insatiable in her appetites, moving from man to man and leaving heartbreak, jealous rage and even suicides in her wake.

A photograph of Dagny Juell and Przybyszewski from 1897.

In 1893 Munch met Dagny, and painted her portrait with great tenderness.  There developed a love triangle between himself and the Przybyszewskis, and it has been posited that Munch’s famous Self Portrait with Cigarette was meant as a companion piece to his painting of Dagny.  Both are presented below:

Both show their subjects firmly in the milieu, as if emerging out of the mist of smoke and lust that pervaded Zum Swarzen Fergel.  No raw or blatant sexuality on display, Dagny is shown in a black dress that covers her body.  There is, however, an implicit seduction in her teetering pose and sweet, insouciant smile.  Munch, on the other hand, portrays himself as the consummate tortured bohemian.  Caught as if by surprise, he confronts us with bewildered but calculating eyes – a business-like, accomplished artist hiding behind the rising smoke while emerging from a scratchy blue fog of an alcoholic haze.  Much has been made of this masterful self-portrait, and for an artist who painted himself hundreds of times throughout the course of his life, it remains one of his most arresting images.  Dagny, on the other hand, exudes a projected, disingenuous innocence, the very picture of sexual decadence and the new woman.  The Finnish writer Adolph Paul described her as vagina dentata, or the vagina with teeth, capable of un-sexing a male through the very act of copulation.  He wrote of a “smile that made you wish for kisses but inspired fear of the two rows of pearl-white teeth which waited behind her thin lips for a chance to strike.”  Dagny and Munch indeed consummated their mutual attraction, and he painted several versions of the jealous Przybyszewski – the cuckold husband barely enduring his wife’s infidelities.  It is worth recalling here that this jealous grief  comes from the man who was free love’s most staunch advocate, and remained so.  Espousing polygamous relations to the end, he bore his grief to uphold his beliefs.  Two examples of the jealousy theme depicting Munch, Dagny Juel and Przybyszewski are presented below:

In “Jealousy” of 1896, Pzybyszewski confronts the viewer while an iconic, highly sexualized woman in red resembling an opening vagina (faceless, but meant to represent Dagny as an archetype) engages a faceless man (presumably the artist himself) in the background.

In “Red Virginia Creeper” of 1900, Przybyszewski, quite literally green with jealousy, flees from a house covered in Virginia Creepers representing dripping blood where there is presumably a tryst between his wife and another man taking place within.

Dagny and Przybyszewski eventually moved to Przybyszewski ‘s native Poland, where  they joined the bohemian society there and helped popularize Munch’s work with the Polish literati (obviously no hard feelings over the whole fucking-your-wife-thing).  Perhaps t was inevitable that Przybyszewski soon abandoned Dagny for another woman, and she in turn began an affair with the son of a mine owner named Wladyslaw Emeryk.  In a jealous rage Emeryk shot her in the head (in front of her five year-old son) before killing himself in a hotel in the Caucuses in 1901.


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