With an exciting exhibition opening at the British Museum and the fact that a year ago I was in Oslo exploring Munch, it seems to be the right time to share the essay I was inspired to write after an intense conversation about Munch’s portrayal of women in his paintings.
Much has been written on Edvard Munch’s personal relationships with women from his familial roots with mother and sister, through to his sexual encounters and the way in which they fed into his art. It is almost simplistic to assume that his output was this obvious; his symbolism was not only connected to the way in which he had been brought up, but also by the way in which he lived his adult life in direct opposition to the traditions of his society.
In an essay published by the Women’s Art Journal in 1989, entitled “The Cultural Roots of Edvard Munch’s Images of Women”,(1) Kristie Jayne explored the way social and economic mores of the late 19th century impacted on the art that Munch produced and, in particular, the way in which we should perceive the women in the art as being “passive procreators”.
Jayne specifically mentioned a number of paintings that are directly linked to the way in which women were being thought of during the “long nineteenth century”(2), courtesy of the studies of Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. Jayne believes that, “aspects of Munch’s art reflect an awareness of Darwinian concepts of sexual difference-as well as a number of other “scientifically based” theories of sexual differences which stressed the female’s procreative capabilities, inclinations, and obligations.” (3) In The Descent of Man, (4) Darwin makes the comment that, “Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness”. While he does state that “the chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman, whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands”, he does not emphasis that one is more superior to the other. Therefore, when Jayne connects Munch’s view of women in his art as being linked to Darwinism, it seems to be more of an attempt to contextualise Munch with twenty first century attitudes towards differences between the sexes, as seen at the end of her essay, where Jayne summarises thus:
“Munch’s women are disclosed as helpless pawns of biological and sexual forces and processes buried below the level of consciousness. In the works …
there is no suggestion of an intellectual or professional sphere in which woman might operate. She is cast only in the roles of sexual partner and procreator, which, in the scientific, social, and economic climate of Munch’s era,translated into wife and mother.”(5)
This anaphoric tendency does much to detract from what Munch was demonstrating in many of the works that he categorised as “The Frieze of Life”. This essay aims to show that the women in the paintings, are far from being “helpless pawns”; that it is more likely it is Munch’s own psychological fears and experiences which dominate his works, and in fact, the helpless character running through the work is Munch himself.
If we begin with two works that epitomise the roles society at this time was placing on women: maiden, wife and mother, old maid, we may well agree that Munch was just as imbued with the expectations of his time as everyone else; however, while this was a theme he would revisit between 1894 and the end of the century, we can see that time and again, he would go against, and even challenge, society’s norms.
Oscarian society in Norway in the nineteenth century was similar to most western countries at this time; home was all important and the roles were defined, more so than prior to industrialisation. Munch’s friend, playwright, Henrik Ibsen addressed this issue in his play, A Doll’s House, where young, middle class married couple, Torvald and Nora are trapped and tortured by the strict standards of Norwegian society. In his diaries about the play, Ibsen wrote:
“A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view”(6)
In Ibsen’s play as with Munch’s paintings, the female protagonists fight against this patriarchal society.
Repeatedly, Munch returned to the theme of the stages of woman in terms of their reproductive cycles; in 1895 with Three Stages of Woman and in 1899 in The Dance of Life, as examples:
Symbolic imagery is rife in both of these works: The young, virginal girl on the left, always clad in white and who appears to be waiting, breathlessly for the moment in which she becomes ‘woman’. To the right, the woman at the end of her sexual cycle looks back, sometimes with regret, but often with the look of the corpse about her; her ‘role’ is now at an end and she is of no further use. So far, so appropriate to its time.
In the centre is the sexual being, the “procreator”; the woman at the height of her sexuality; arms raised, back arched and prime for the taking. Or, as in the second work,is she the temptress, in red, gazing lovingly, wantonly, into another’s eyes? Using the metaphor of dance for love-making, Munch makes it clear through the positioning of the couple in the centre of The Dance of Life, that this moment is the mainstay of existence. The dress is entwined around the couple, leading us to see that it is the woman who leads the ‘dance’. Hardly the ‘helpless pawn’ of the traditional view. It is believed that Munch was inspired by lines in a play written by his friend, Helge Rode called Dansen gaar (The Dance Goes on) when one of the characters says:
“The dance of life – my picture shall be called The Dance of Life! There will be a couple dancing, in flowing garments.… He holds her tightly. He is deeply serious and happy.… He will hold her so tight that she halfway merges with him.… He fills her with strength.” (7)
This appears life-affirming in the extreme; the idea of two merging to become one, but this seems to be a difficulty for Munch in his art as well as his life, and it is a theme he returns to much later. The reason for this is while Rode has the male lover being the one who “fills her with strength”, for Munch, it was the reverse situation. The woman in Dance, is clearly in control and, if we look carefully at Three Stages, the man plays an unexpected role here: the loser in love.
When this painting was displayed at Bomqvist’s in Kristiana, Ibsen insisted on seeing the exhibition. In Livsfrisens tilblivelse (Oslo: Blomqvist , 1998 , Munch recalled the visit:
I said – the dark one standing between the tree-trunks by the naked woman is the nun – so to speak- the woman’s shadow – sorrow and death – The naked one is the woman full of the joy of life – Beside the – once again the blonde white-clad woman walking towards the sea – towards infinity – that is the woman of yearning- Between the tree trunks furthest to the right stand the man – in pain and unable to understand.(8)
Symbolic Study 1893
It is, however, with the preparatory sketch for The Three Stages of Woman made in 1893, entitled Symbolic Study, that we can really start to see themes Munch was beginning to explore and that can be seen in so many of the works that followed. Themes that resonated less with the way in which women were perceived by the society of their age, and more with his own circumstances; ones that left him “in pain and unable to understand.”
We begin on the left hand side of the sketch where stands the burgeoning young woman on the brink of womanhood; her hands shielding her genitals from the gaze of the viewer. Her legs are entwined, further preventing the penetrative gaze from violating her innocence. This is the core theme of a painting that came the following year, Puberty.
This work was replicated several times, and this early version was a copy of one that had previously been destroyed by fire. Clearly, this image meant a great deal to Munch. In this version, the subject is centrally posed, with her hands coyly covering her genitalia. She sits on the edge of the bed and her whole demeanour is one of discomfort. Today, this is a difficult image to view, but if we can look at it through the eyes of a someone from the late 19th century, what can we see? Jayne comments that “in reality she is calling attention to the image’s central theme: emerging female sexuality.”(9) But for Munch, this is laced with a negative concept. There is a darkness that seems to come from the shadow on the wall cast by her body which, to some interpretations, represents a phallic threat to this young virgin.
The Polish poet and friend of Munch’s, Stanislav Przybyszewksi wrote a piece that perhaps gives us a different interpretation to the image Munch obsessively repeated:
She sensed it, she didn’t understand […] She couldn’t imagine, she merely felt the wild, quivering shudder surge through her body. She clasped both her hands between her knees, bent forwards and pulled in her feet, and there she sat, huddled up on the edge of the bed, listening in anxious pain to something unfamiliar and frightening. What was it? It came so often, always afresh! It frightened her. It made her tremble. The entire house was full of ghosts. (Translated from “Underveis”, Kra: 1895).(10)
When Munch’s elder sister, Sophie developed tuberculosis and died, she was fifteen and on her way to womanhood. Edvard would accompany her on the walks she took with her friends, even falling in love with one of them. During her final illness, Edvard would be with her as she called out for relief. In his diary, Edvard, later wrote that she asked:
‘Dear sweet Edvard, take it from me, It hurts so much. Won’t you please?’ She looked at me so pleadingly. ‘Yes, of course you will. See that head there? It is death.’
But I could not take it away from her. I went behind the curtain and wept.(11)
If we consider how close Munch was to his sister and the grief he felt at her passing at such a crucial age, we can begin to see how the seeds of relationships with women were being planted with both the death of his mother at the height of her womanhood and his sister’s at the start of hers. The dark shadow in Puberty could represent this image of death that Sophie could see in her delirium, and one that followed her and Edvard throughout their young life. Munch never recovered from the death of his sister and the chair in which she died remained in his possession for the rest of his life.
The idea of death is never far away in Munch’s work and, in the study, to the right is the older woman with halo; symbolic of the mother who has passed away. During the period of his mother’s final and fatal illness, she would often remind young Edvard and his siblings that she would watch over them from heaven and, after her death, this notion was reinforced by his father, repeatedly. The mother is now ‘saintly’ and is in positioned at the end of the canvas; at the end of life itself. This positioning is clearly shown in both Three Stages and Dance of Life. However, this is only part of Munch’s story and if we return to the Symbolic Study, other elements now begin to make sense when we look at the works in conjunction with Munch’s relationships now he was of age.
Munch’s adult relationships were, in the main, with married women. We could argue, in the first instance, that he gained an erotic thrill by these liaisons, and the main attraction was with the women already being in the twin roles of ‘wife and mother’ and where he could take the central role of lover without the responsibility of a full relationship.
His first real romance was with Millie Thaulow, the wife of a captain in the medical corps and mainstays of Oslo society and, where, she already had a reputation amongst Munch’s fellow artists. Munch was attracted to the older woman from the start and their many encounters were described by Munch in his diaries. Written as a narrative, with pseudonyms for the protagonists, it is a tale of teasing by the more experienced woman on a besotted young man:
He took her round the waist – she pressed against him- everything vanished, trees, air, something wonderful possessed him – he felt warm lips on his neck – a wet cheek against his own – and his mouth sank softly into hers.(12)
The Oscarian society of nineteenth century Norway was not so different from the British Victorian one. What mattered in society was how things were perceived to be ‘correct’. There was an element of hypocrisy surrounding sexual conduct. While it was deemed acceptable for a man to be experienced, the woman he married was expected to be pure. However, the idea that society was ‘repressed, prudish’ and unable to discuss sex was, in reality, not true. In the section entitled, ‘Sexuality’, Susie Steinbach describes one of the key areas where there was shift in understanding as being the relationship between women and sexual desire along with the scientific thinking behind the female orgasm. Early debates centred around the way the orgasm was deemed necessary for conception; sexual pleasure would release the ovum and conception would occur. This theory began to alter during the nineteenth century: ‘respectable’ women only had sex to reproduce, while it was deemed as natural for the man to be governed by his sexual desire. Steinbach puts forward the idea that “as the notion of passionlessness was medicalized over the nineteenth century, it became less empowering for women” (13)
Jayne argues, in the same vein: that artists during this period “celebrated female procreative powers as the timeless essence of womanhood in the face of, and perhaps as a bulwark against, emerging feminism.” (14) In her analysis, she describes the Madonna as floating in “her own fluid-filled, amniotic like sac, …The instruments of her own physiological destiny imprison her.”
In light of all this therefore, Madonna becomes a conundrum. This is not the image of the Virgin mother; it is not even a representation of the idea of motherhood, despite Jayne’s notion of the amniotic fluid surrounding her. This Madonna’s countenance has been variously described as orgasmic bliss, sexual allure, arrogant disdain, pallidly cadaverous, deathly beguiling, self consumed, sexual/reproductive objectification, teasing disinterest, and these varying descriptions leave us perplexed. Is she mother, goddess, siren, or the epitome of temptation?
Munch’s Madonna appears to be in a state of ecstasy; the sexual fulfillment that was not seen to be the right of women. The women he was with were part of the Bohemian life he had been drawn to, but where he remained on the outside. Munch’s problem came when they returned to their husbands and he was left with his own thoughts that were governed by his religious upbringing. To quote from his diary of the time he lost his virginity:
He thought it terrible that he should go to her – and terrible that she knew what he wanted…he would not look at her. He wanted the thing he had dreamed of. He lay on top of her – he wanted – –
They said nothing – he felt humiliated – a tremendous tiredness and sorrow. She stroked his hair.
He walked away with his head in his hands. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, the Commandment rang out in his father’s voice. He had committed adultery. All of a sudden it was all so ugly.(15)
Her patronising stroking of his hair, and pity would only enhance his feeling that she is the one who was in control of the sexual experience and who could walk away with no regrets, while he was left with his ‘head in his hands’ full of despair and guilt of having committed adultery. Hence why, perhaps, the Madonna is in a state of all the above descriptions but is shown experiencing them alone.
While this argument has its merits, there is a problem with how we can interpret this image when faced with the fact that the original frame was painted with sperm cells and a small foetus in the corner, gazing pathetically at the Madonna. Suddenly, we are no longer faced with a woman in sensuous abandon, but with one who rejects her biological role; the one society was at great pains to ensure all women knew was the fate. Munch said of this painting:
“Your face encompasses the beauty of the whole earth. Your lips, as red as ripening fruit, gently part as if in pain. It is the smile of a corpse. Now the hand of death touches life. The chain is forged that links the thousand families that are dead to the thousand generations to come.”(16)
Based on the last line of this quotation, we can understand why Jayne places the Madonna firmly in the realm of the 19th century theorists and believes that “her primary function is the physiological process of reproduction” which imprisoned nineteenth century women, but this fails to take into account the way in which Munch saw the world at this time. He clearly linked sensuality and death together: His lines take us from the all encompassing beauty, but immediately links the physical reaction to lovemaking to death: her red lips do not part in ecstasy, but in pain, her smile is corpse-like and death comes to touch life.
This sperm and foetus motif is disturbing when viewed in Madonna but more so when it also appears in Ashes in 1894. In Symbolic Study, rather than see this as reflecting the “reproductive imprisonment/sacrifice” (17) of the female; let us argue that it speaks more of wasted desire on the part of the male figure, with the foetus representing the cowering and unfulfilled male and explore how this operates within Ashes.
In this work, traditional sexual roles are reversed. As in Three Stages of Woman, the male is reduced to a passive wreck and is a contrast to the woman who rejoices in her sexuality. The question we need to ask is why this has occurred? We are already aware that Munch felt “humiliated – a tremendous tiredness and sorrow” following his sexual experience in the forest. In her biography of Munch, Sue Prideaux ascribes this to the affair with Fru Thulow:
“He feared the power that seemed to energise her after lovemaking, while he felt empty unto death, drained of both free will and power. Weakness and shame, fear and desire were ambivalently linked at the moment of union that provided a glimpse into the abyss beyond, the realm of sin and death.(18)
Prideaux reinforces this with a quotation from Munch: “I felt our love lying on the ground like a heap of ashes”
When we look at the male figure in Three Stages of Woman, Kristie Jayne insists that:
“The lone man in The Three Stages of Woman is almost hidden in the darkness of the forest on the far right. Separated from the women by a tree trunk, he also looks away from them. He is whole, indivisible, a complete sexual being.” But, surely, this cannot be so. Does our man in Ashes look whole, indivisible, a complete sexual being? Or, is he Munch himself? Empty of life, drained by the woman taking from him everything that made him a sexual being and nothing else.
Just as with Madonna, the dejected figure in Ashes is surrounded by a swirl of spermatozo. Here, it is being drawn into the tree on the left. This theme appears in yet another painting, Metabolism, Munch originally painted in a foetus in the tree of life, but later painted it out.
Munch connected Ashes to the Madonna through that flow of spermatozoa across the bottom and up the left hand side, forming another tree in that dark forest. He talked about another painting with a forest and described it as ‘the forest which sucks its nourishment from the dead.’ Jayne quotes from Munch’s diary in which he says,
It would be a pleasurable experience to sink into, to unite with … that everlasting, everstirring earth …. I would become one with it, and plants and trees would grow up out of my rotting corpse …. I would be “in” them, I would live on-that is eternity.
Munch’s desire to live on, to give everything, seems to put our cowering man into perspective. She has taken everything from him to leave him a shell of his former self; a kind of death thereby ensuring his connection to nature is complete while she rejoices in her fecundity.
However, Munch seems to be placed in an unfulfilled role in his relationships and this fits more with the figure in Ashes. With Fru Thulow, his jealousy and obsession began to impact on his work. In his diary he wrote feverishly of how she caused him to feel “the entire unhappiness of love”:
Was it because she took my first kiss that she took away my life’s breath? Was it that she lied – she deceived – that suddenly one day the scales fell away from my eyes and I saw a Medusa head and I saw life as a thing of terror.(19)
The lover turning into the monster is the theme he addressed in the works that became known as Vampire.
Vampire I 1895
Vampire, in the first instance, would completely justify this view. In the Vampire legends and stories, the vampire, usually male, has to be invited, thereby implying that this contact is ‘wanted’. In the painting, this role is reversed and the two are in an embrace where the life force is being taken by the female, but is it being taken by force or given willingly? If one looks carefully, one can see he has his arms wrapped around her waist. He wants this as much as her and is pulling himself further into the embrace.
Time and again, we see women in art being portrayed as the alluring succubus. Tantalising, demanding and yet this invariably leads to unfulfilling sexual congress either through the physical act not combining with true love, through the male being teased and tortured but not being allowed ultimate sexual satisfaction, or with him being unable to consummate his carnal desires due to his own physical or emotional fragility.
Munch’s relationship with Fru Thurlow had come to an end. But his obsession with her had not. He visited the brothels of Oslo in an act of revenge against the memory of her; but he also found himself in relationships with ‘pure’ young ladies who either bored him(20) or who only saw him through the veil of friendship that were unfulfilling. It would appear that he could never replicate the feeling he had once experienced: “She was warm and I felt her body close to mine. We kissed long – it was absolutely still in the lofty studio.”(21)
The Kiss 1897
The painting that seems to answer our hypothesis that Munch is portraying his own experiences is The Kiss, as it portrays the one element that has been missing in all of the works so far: connection.
In this painting, Munch is exploring more than the physical act of love. It is about the connection, body, mind and soul that unites two people.
“Human fates are like planets
Like a star that emerges
from the dark –
and meets another star –
shines for a second before disappearing again
into the dark – [it is] in this way – in this way
a man and a woman meet – glide towards
one another are illuminated in love’s
flames – to then disappear
in their separate directions –
Only a few meet in a
single large blaze – where they both
can be fully united”
In The Kiss, there is a tenderness that has been lacking in the previous works; the two are unending; you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends: ‘fully united’. And it appears that this is what he searched for his entire life.
One quotation by Munch that stands out above all others is this:
“My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm’s edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss.”
If we go back to the idea of wasted desire, we cannot place this on any of the women in his paintings, it is Munch who was ultimately unfulfilled by his relationships and it is Munch who appears in these works. Despite wanting them, when the women he worshipped returned to their husbands replete and satisfied, Munch turned to find he is alone and the cycle of melancholy begins again. The art that was created from his experiences continues to speak to us of timeless themes of love, desire and heartache. The times in which he lived had social restrictions for men as well as for women, but to argue that the women in his works can be interpreted as “sexual partner and procreator” takes away from the work the essence of Munch’s own experiences.
- Jayne, Kristie. “The Cultural Roots of Edvard Munch’s Images of Women.” Woman’s Art Journal , vol. 10, no. 1, 1989, p. 28., doi:10.2307/1358127.
- Steinbach, Susie. Women in England 1760-1914: a Social History . Weidenfeld & amp; Nicolson, 2004. “Many of the nineteenth century’s most important features – industrialization, urbanization, the growth and dominance of the middle class,…was evident from 1760” p5
- Jayne (1989) P 32
- Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man: and Selection in Relation to Sex. Hurst and Co., 1874.
- Jayne, (1989) P33
- Ibsen, Henrik, et al. Four Major Plays . Oxford University Press, 2008.
- Edvard Munch in the National Museum. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, 2008. P 58
- Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch behind the Scream, Yale University Press, (2005), P 158
- Jayne, (1989), P28
- Edvard Munch in the National Museum. P 40
- Prideaux, (2005), P31
- Prideaux (2005) p62-63
- Steinbach, (2004), p108
- Jayne (1989) p29
- Prideaux (2005) P64
- Edvard Munch in the National Museum, P39
- Jayne, (1989), P33
- Prideaux (2005) p64-65
- Prideaux (2005) P101
- Charlotte Dornberger, sister of another artist fell in love with the ill Munch when he stayed at their house. In a letter to him she pleaded with him to meet her: “You only have to send me a note and I’ll be there, Maybe I’m tiresome? Are you growing tired of me.” Prideaux (2005) P102
- Prideaux (2005) P133
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man: and Selection in Relation to Sex. Hurst and Co., 1874.
Edvard Munch in the National Museum. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, 2008.
Jayne, Kristie. “The Cultural Roots of Edvard Munch’s Images of Women.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 1989, p. 28., doi:10.2307/1358127.
Lampe, Angela, and Clément Chéroux. Edvard Munch The Modern Eye. Tate Publishing, 2012.
Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch behind the Scream. Yale University Press, 2005.
Steinbach, Susie. Women in England 1760-1914: a Social History. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.