Edvard Munch’s “Vampire”


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The truth is, Munch did not title this painting “Vampire.” He called it “Love and Pain” and it was only later that it picked up the name and interpretation of a man locked in a vampire’s embrace. Munch maintained it was nothing more than a woman kissing a man on the neck. The Nazis declared it morally ‘degenerate.’ I’m not sure what they saw in it that I don’t. I see a man in anguish, arms around his love, while she tries to comfort him. Perhaps she is laying her face on his shoulder even. Some thought it was about his visits to prostitutes, yet others saw it as some sort of macabre fantasy about the death of his favorite sister. Evidently Munch remained ambiguous about the deeper meaning behind it.

It was considered shocking when it was unveiled, somehow people saw sado-masochism in it. Maybe it’s too subtle for me, or I’m too naïve, but I’m not seeing that either. Women’s liberation? Maybe it’s her loose red hair and red dress that mark her as a siren. The darkness surrounding them, and the man’s own black clothing make her stand out all the more. But is it really shocking today?

Munch completed four of these during 1893 – 1894, and in 2008, the version pictured above (apparently the most significant of the four versions) was auctioned off publicly after being in the hands of a private collector for 70 years. It was estimated it would sell for $35m, but I haven’t been able to find out the final sale price.

Here’s another version, where her dress is either black or not depicted. The room around them is lighter, as if a small candle burns behind them.

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Whatever they were intended to depict, they’re mesmerizing. It has been widely reproduced, you can even get it on a coffee mug.

UPDATE: 9/8/2011

And a third version:

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26 thoughts on “Edvard Munch’s “Vampire”

  1. Wow that one costly coffee mug. I like the first photo though. All I see is a women who is trying to comfort her husband or lover. I wonder what was wrong though because a man do not cry into a women bosom unless something severely has happen, like death, lost of fortune, and etc. You can tell he has also a tight hold on her of seeing his right hand wrap around her waist.

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    1. “I wonder what was wrong though because a man do not cry into a women bosom unless something severely has happen”

      Very perceptive, startingover. To me it’s about the exact moment when desire and need collide, and it’s up to the viewer to decide what could have happened to bring them to this place. You can’t tell looking at it whether they were lovers before this – visual art doesn’t always have a single narrative, with a beginning, middle and ending. Honestly, I think that is part of what bugs people who demand to know “what’s it ABOUT?!”

      It’s very beautiful, but too intense for me to drink my coffee out of every morning! My mugs tend toward cute little animals, flowers, and Looney Tunes characters. Oh and I used to have one that aid “Piss me off, pay the consequences.” I wonder what ever happened to that?

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  2. Thanks guys, glad you liked it. Yes, I haven’t availed myself of the mug, although I was sorely tempted! I am/was not an artist and do not run in artistic circles so I had never seen these paintings before. There’s also a pen and ink version (at least that’s what it looks like to me) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (although it says it’s not on display).

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  3. I like when artist’s don’t reveal exactly what they meant by a painting. It’s nice when they leave it up to our interpretation.

    I’m also at a loss at why it’s supposed to be shocking. I mean…I can’t even see why it would be shocking back then! Come on, the Naked Maja was hanging in museums in the early 19th century…

    As for the nazis, they were against all the modern art movements. Any art that didn’t fit their ideology was considered, “degenerate”.

    This is a short article that you might find interesting: http://www.suite101.com/content/degenerate-art-the-nazi-propaganda-war-against-modernity-a316870

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    1. It really is puzzling why this caused such a flap. There were already plenty of nudes portrayed, vastly more explicit paintings. And as you point out, Goya’s Maya was much earlier. I guess people see what they want to see. Maybe that was Munch’s joke, leave it open to interpretation and see who had the perviest interpretation of it 😉

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  4. I think it’s beautiful,too. Surprising for me, because I generally don’t like Munch’s work. I know “Scream” is beloved and iconic and all that. Frankly, I think it’s the ugliest darn thing.

    But this painting is beautiful with a strange, raw power.

    I’m also thinking it may have been controversial not because of what it may have represented- but simply because of its form and style? For a long time, any kind of art that went against the typical classical styles caused fury. Hard to comprehend now, but just think of all the negativity the Impressionists received.

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  5. Haha, well, I’d disagree about “The Scream,” I find it fascinating. 🙂 But yes, there is a power to this painting that really haunts me. I love looking at it, it’s almost like you can feel their emotions. One article I read on it said it was still “shocking” today, but I don’t get it.

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  6. You can have it! 😉

    Curious about the article. Did they say that they personally found it shocking, or that “people” found it shocking? Because I’m always reading articles where “people” are “shocked” about this, that, or another thing. And I always wonder who the heck are these unnamed people and where are they living that they could be so easily shocked by something that Emily Bronte would have just shrugged at?

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  7. I think this is the article I was remembering. It quotes Simon Shaw from Sotheby’s.

    “Mr Shaw added: “It was shocking to Berlin society just as it is shocking today.” ”

    In the article it also mentions people see sado-masochism in it. I guess some people see what they want to see?

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  8. Thanks for the link!

    “Mr Shaw added: “It was shocking to Berlin society just as it is shocking today.” ”

    Err no. I swear they just throw that word around hoping to draw attention and sell more tickets.

    .

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  9. I’m going to jump up on my feminist soapbox here, and suggest that maybe those vague & unspecified “people” (I spank my students about that all the time – I tell ’em if you can’t quote a person who says this, either say it yourself or don’t say it at all) got their panties in a bunch b/c the painting shows the man in a position of weakness, seeking strength and comfort from ther woman? Happens all the time, of course, but a certain type of man does not like to be reminded…

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  10. I was half formulating a similar thought about this, that it shows the woman in a superior position to be able to comfort the man. Clearly this was something Munch felt strongly about, whatever its meaning may have been, as he did four versions of it. It had a powerful effect on him, and he has managed to convey that beautifully.

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    1. You’d think that teenagers from New Jersey would be among the bluntest and most plain-spoken people in the country, but honestly, I spend the better part of the first month trying to tear them away from evasive consructions like “some would say,” “many people think,” and of course “it could be said.” All together now, pilgrims:

      WHO would say it?

      HOW many people? Who are they? Have you met them? Can you quote them?

      and,

      wait for it

      If it could be said, JUST GO AHEAD AND SAY IT. This is Jersey, for crying out loud!!!
      I love my job. I mean that.

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  11. The Munch Museet in Oslo has, I believe, the second version and woodcut. In context the painting becomes even deeper.
    The museum is wholly dedicated to Edvard Munch and contains well over 1000 of his pieces. There are many paintings that embed deep emotion in the work and most issue a sense of Munch himself regardless of setting. It’s as if one is seeing the world and life through Munch’s strong and powerful emotional biases.
    I have made trips to many museums, even as destinations, but none has pulled me into the artist’s psyche as did the collection in Oslo. What was a morning trip turned into a day of introspection as Munch opened up his world to me and demanded that I make the effort to try to understand his complicated life. With so many views one begins to see patterns and relate…almost as if you could predict how he might feel about and describe even a present day life situation, one that may be a current experience of the viewer.
    And I guess that’s my takeaway from Munch….more than any other artist, he depicts what he wants you to feel about any subject while the subject itself is just the place, person or time in which the emotion is experienced.
    Enjoy your blog….

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  12. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for all that. I certainly hope I’ll have the chance to visit it someday. It sounds mesmerizing. I don’t often blog about art, so you can tell these paintings affected me deeply as well.

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