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