It speaks volumes of an artist when a painting he titles Love and Pain becomes popularly known and eventually renamed Vampire, but Edvard Munch’s portrayal of a depleted man resting his head in a red-haired woman’s lap has been controversial and generated intense debate since it was first exhibited over a century ago.
The Norwegian artist is known for the many versions he did of his paintings. Sick Child —a depiction of his sister, Sophie, who died from tuberculosis when the artist was 13 years old— has six versions; Love and Pain has 13; his best known work, The Scream, has five. Munch explained that he painted what he remembered, not what he saw, so every new version of his paintings was his way of recapturing a memory and seeing it evolve as a work of art. With every new iteration, there’s fresh input into the artist’s life and his mental state, for they change significantly in color, size, and technique.
Since its first appearance in Berlin in 1902 —part of the artist’s Frieze of Life, a series of paintings that depict secular scenes of human beings and nature—, Love and Pain has given rise to a number of interpretations, starting with that of a vampire and her victim. It was proposed by Polish art critic and Munch’s friend, Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who immediately saw the image as that of a woman sinking her teeth into the neck of a broken man. The artist accepted his friend’s suggestion of renaming it Vampire. Others see it as a man embracing a prostitute, given her fiery hair, or a bizarre depiction of his sister’s death, just like in Sick Child.
Whichever the right interpretation of the painting is —Munch said he merely saw it as a woman kissing a man’s neck—, Love and Pain remained controversial throughout the artist’s life and was eventually banned by the Nazis for being morally degenerate.
It’s hard nowadays to comprehend the backlash suffered by the portrayal of a man embracing a woman, her face lowered and hovering over him. It wouldn’t flutter many contemporary feathers if it was displayed for the first time in our time. But it’s true that the title and use of color suggests a darker undertone, a relationship that’s taking a toll on the man, who seems physically and emotionally drained by this supposed vampire.
Munch’s work has often been signaled for its misogynistic views, with paintings like The Woman or Ashes II cited as examples of his negative and apparently fearful view of women. Love and Pain continues to reflect this inner turmoil of an artist who seemed to view women as imposing creatures that would destroy him if given the chance. But there is a certain tenderness to this vampire; she overpowers the man, yet carefully wraps her arms around him in a comforting embrace; her warm hair falling over him, the only bright color in a sea of black and white.
The painting portrays love as frightfully complex and always coupled with grief and pain; perhaps this is what attracts people to it, as it is considered to be one of the artist’s greatest and most successful creations.
Even when it first lit up the artistic world and found itself immersed in controversy, an 1894 version of the Love and Pain —one of the most beautiful of all— was quickly sold to John Anker, a Munch collector, in 1903. From then on, it was bought by private collectors and was temporarily loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 2008 it was auctioned for US$38.2 million, the most expensive work by Munch in history, a proper ending for a painting that has made us question the nature of love and helped us delve into the mind of an intriguing artist, sincere in his portrayals of anxiety, fear, and loneliness.
Don’t forget to check out:
Painting Sorrow And Hope In 7 Works Of Art From The Holocaust
The Excruciating Pain Of Heartbreak Through The Eyes Of 6 Works Of Art
The New York Times