“Dance of life” by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch is very different from his predecessors and future ones. His unhealthy vision of the world and acute sensitivity were formed in a distant childhood, leaving an imprint on the creative activity and personal life of the genius. The artist was born in 1863 in a large family, which in 1864 moved from a small Norwegian town to Christiania (modern Oslo). Soon, his mother passed away from tuberculosis, and another ten years later – his oldest beloved sister Sophie. Two painful losses of loved ones pointed Munch his own way, the way of the artist, capturing events and sensations.

becoming an artist

Spring. 1889.

In the 1880’s. first made a trip to Paris, after which he took the path of becoming “habitual” for us Munch. In the film “Spring” (1889) he parted with a dreamy uncertainty. Prototypes of Munch’s motifs of despair, loneliness and dreams are presented in the charm of details and a muffled atmosphere. Later, at art exhibitions, he was inspired by impressionism (Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, James Whistler), post-impressionism (Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh), neo-impressionism (Georges Seurat, Paul Signac) and Toulouse-Lautrec.

1892 Munch spent in Germany where he met many artists and writers who appreciated Scandinavian art more than their French counterparts. In Munch’s works of this period a strange mixture of symbolism and socialism, ideas of humanism and world pain is formed but it is still too early to speak about expressionism. In that year, the death (or rather the suicide) of another close person contributed to a sharp push in the development of the artist. Norwegian Danyi Juel or Soul as he called her the widest circle of acquaintances made Munch jealous of her friends, which was reflected in his self-titled work “Jealousy” (1894-1895).

1892-1902 — Munch’s breakthrough to his own personal style, as evidenced by such masterpieces as “Scream” (1893) and “Madonna” (1894-1895). This breakthrough was carried out on the principle of “three steps forward – two backwards”: as a result of the experiments the pictures radically differ from each other in character, style and execution. Now the artist’s new works are related to early expressionism.

I do not write what I see I write what I saw


The concept of expressionism at that time was used mainly to refer to the activities of German writers and artists. Paul Cassirer (1871-1926), a Berlin art dealer, called “expressionism” the work of Edward Munch to show the difference between his work and impressionism. I consider it erroneous to attribute the entire Munch to pure expressionism since this direction was widely spread and developed only in the 1910s-20s. At this time Edward suffered a mania of persecution, was sick a lot and already departed from expressionist works. The fact that Munch stood at the roots of expressionism is yes, I agree.

But still what is expressionism? First of all, it is an expression of inner feelings, emotions and experiences. This is not a style, but a direction and a tendency, since each artist’s manner of expressing feelings is individual (compare, for example, the pictures of Ernst Kirchner, Oscar Kokoschka and Otto Dix). Internal emotional power is reflected with the help of bright colors, “grossly” simplified forms and refusal of the passive impressionistic image of nature. The laws of perspective, anatomy, naturalness, color are useless. For most Expressionists there is also a high degree of tension and a fascination with the aesthetics of coarseness and ugliness.

The features of expressionism are embodied in the main cycle of Munch’s work on life, love and death called “The Frieze of Life” over which he worked for thirty years since 1888. It also clearly distinguishes features of symbolism: the desire to transform nature, broad imaginative thinking and metaphoricality. In the images of the “Frieze of Life” the initial and final phases of the life cycle are traced, human life, its fate and the meaning of life are comprehended.

dance of life

Dance of life. 1899-1900.

Researchers of Munch’s work hold different theories about the source of the artist’s inspiration to create this picture. I am more impressed by the tragedy of the story told by Rolf Stenersen who was closely friends with the Norwegian artist. Even in his youth a lady from the circle of writer Hans Jaeger in which the artist was a member fell in love with him. That lady was a rich woman who went crazy about artists, but not their works. She wanted to conquer Munch. A day or so she spun around him and he ran to work quietly. Once, through a mutual friend she told me that she was lying at death and Edvard had to come. As soon as he entered the room she jumped out of bed with screams that he still loves her. They quarreled. The woman said that she would shoot herself which Munch certainly did not believe, putting his hand on her. The lady from somewhere took out her pistol and shot the index finger on her left hand. After this incident, he began to wear a glove to hide the injury, and became even more unsociable.

Stenersen talks about another love story. Even from the past situation it is clear that Munch had great power over women, many were looking for his love. However, the artist himself did not seek to marry, and as soon as the love story began, he immediately ran away from her. When he was still poor, he could marry one rich woman who appears in several of his paintings about love. But as she distracted him from work, he left her. And for the rest of my life I was afraid of her. We can only guess: who is that woman? Is not that the crazy lady? what kind of pictures are devoted to it? Is there a “Dance of Life” among them?

Its name “Dance of Life” was not derived from its creator, but from critics and art dealers. Munch often allowed them to do this – he liked the bookish nature of these names. Among them you can identify “Room of the dying”, “Meeting”, “Kiss”, “Vampire”, etc.

“Dance of Life” is the main picture of the famous cycle about life, love and death. At night on a full moon on a meadow near the lake or the sea in a fast pace dancing couples: men in black tuxedos and the women in yellow and white dresses. In the foreground on the sides are two women: on the left — in a white dress, on the right — in black. Between them a couple in love holding hands froze in the dance. People represent one whole with the landscape merge with it. They swing like a branch in the wind on a summer night.

Three ages of women (Sphinx). About 1894.

If we look at the two ladies on the left and right sides of the canvas, we will notice their similarity: both red with a rounded oval face, the same height and physique. The difference is only in their age and mood. Similar ladies we meet on the canvas “Three ages of women (Sphinx)” (1894), whose sketches show that three ladies are not portraits of different women. With the help of them, the artist embodies the various incarnations of the Woman. The one on the left, rejects the male attention, in the center — rivets his anxiety, and the extreme reminds the corpse and the notice of death. Flowers in the hands of a young girl hint at her innocence and presumptive gift to a man.

Munch himself commented on this work as follows: “… Three women – One in white, Irena, dreams of her future – Nude, Maya, full of joy of life – A sad woman with a stiff face pale as death stands between trees — This is fate Irene: Nurturing Patients Three such women appear in Ibsen’s plays under different circumstances – as well as in my frieze. “

Indeed, the similarity of these women we meet in the “Dance of Life”.

Here, a young beauty in white smiles at a dancing couple in the center and reaches for the flower to hear the beautiful scent of love and feel it on herself. Unlike her, an older woman creates the impression of being alienated, and with closed arms she seems to say: “Do not come near me, I beg you.” Her destructive glance at the dancers and tight lips are horrifying with their cruelty and cold-bloodedness. What could contribute to the amazing transformation?

It’s all about the vapors that flooded the clearing. Note that they are all faceless and the silhouettes are vague in motion. It does not matter who dances. The main thing is that they are passionately in love and for them no one else exists. In the foreground there are two pairs: the central pair and slightly behind the closer to the lady in black.

When you look at the picture you immediately pay attention to it — a brightly colored pair in the center. The lovers froze in the dance gently holding hands and do not take their eyes off each other. The outlines of their faces are implicit and nourish us with some conjectures about their thoughts. Do they confess to one another in eternal love? Unlikely. The yellow color of the face gives the impression of fatigue, sadness and nausea.

All women are associated with the man, his desires, experience and disappointment. If you understand the emotions of a man from a central couple is almost impossible then in pairs for a lady in black you can say with certainty: he gets great pleasure. His face is full of rapture thirst and animalism. Just look at the barely noticeable hair elongated ears and nostril holes. He grasps the partner around the waist as if he were about to eat it. Falling into the trap of love the partner can not escape from his clutches.

Pay attention to the pinkish-yellow moon. For Munch the moon is always a full moon. Being a genius in painting he was not distinguished by an outstanding mind: he did not take other phases of the moon, believing that the moon should be necessarily round. So, the Moon’s moon with its reflection in the water repeats itself in the pictures “The Voice” (1893), “Moonlight” (1895). All the attention of the artist is not focused on the image of male and female figures. He is interested in the firm moon pillar and the soft water surface as symbols of the male and female beginnings. In the “Moonlight” there is not even a man and a woman but their presence is clearly felt.

In my opinion, Munch as an artist fully revealed in this picture, “Dance of Life.” Even the famous “Shout” does not show us the versatility of the artist’s inner world, the spectrum of his experiences and thoughts. On one canvas, the unsociability, gloominess, suspicion, softness and touchiness, doubt, irony – all the most striking features of the character of Edvard Munch. They glorified him and destroyed him at the same time. His art is tragic, full of symbolism and mystery. He was able to express the sharpest spiritual collisions of the turn of the century, when everything new seemed alarming and unclear, and the collapse of the old was inevitable. This is what hides the genius of Edvard Munch.

sources used in the russian language:
  1. Norbert Wolff “Expressionism”, 2006. — 96 p.
  2. Ulrich Bischoff “Edvard Munch. 1863-1944. Paintings about life and death”, 2003. — 96 p.
  3. Jean Seltz “Edvard Munch”, 1995. — 95 p.
  4. M.I. Bezrukova “Foreign art of XX century. Edvard Munch”, 1984. — 64  p.
  5. Rolf Stenersen “Edvard Munch”, 1972. — 251 p.

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