The Dance of Life
Essay by Roman Jaster
The Dance of Life, which Munch pained in 1900, takes place on a bright summer night along the shore of Aasgaardstrand in Oslo Fjord. Lit by a full moon, couples engage in an energetic dance. The phallic reflection of the moonlight in the water gives the scene a mood of sexuality. In the center of the painting, a man in a dark suit and a woman in a red dress are sunk within each other. Both of them are in the prime of their lives. The woman's dress wraps around his legs, a couple of strains of her hair reach out towards him. His eyes are closed; the two seem totally self-absorbed and oblivious of others. On the left side a young girl in a white dress and a smile on her face enters the scene. Her hand reaches out towards a flower in front of her. On the opposite side, an old woman stands in a black dress. She watches the dance of the center couple with a bitter facial expression, her hands folded in withdrawn.
Besides the use of color, Munch deepens the differences of the three females by the different use of lines that outline the figures. The adolescent girl on the left is enclosed with sensitive, vibrant strokes. A "swathing, ingestive" line coils around the center female "with her evident appetite for life" (Eggum, Edvard Munch 167). In contras, the dark woman on the right, who appears to have withdrawn from the dance of life, is outlined by angular and rigid lines (Eggum, Edvard Munch 168).
The Dance of Life belongs to a series called the Frieze of Life. This frieze was intended as a series of freely adjoining pictures, which would give a clear view of life and the situation of modern man. Munch wrote: "Through them all there winds the curving shore line, and beyond it the sea, while under the trees, life, with all its complexities of grief and joy, carries on" (Stang 103). The three major themes of the Frieze of Life, love, anxiety and death are clearly expressed in The Dance of Life. Thus, this painting can be seen as one of the centerpieces in the series.
Munch's painting The Dance of Life can be interpreted from various viewpoints and on various levels. The transition of the female figures from adolescence to sexual maturity to old age gives argument that the painting deals with the everlasting cycle of life. In this "bright summer night", Munch writes, "life and death, day and night go hand in hand" (Messer 94). Indeed, death is the birth of life, and Munch realizes this. "Munch expresses his awareness about the biological cycle of human existence by the way he dissolves the figures into the landscape, as if their destiny is indivisible from the higher rhythm of nature" (Edvard Munch 78).
The search of this "higher rhythm of nature" is a primary concern of Munch's art. His particular interest lies in the subject of women as a mystery to man. The differing aspects of the female psyche are clearly expressed in his painting Woman in Three Stages (c. 1894), which can be seen as an important point of origin for The Dance of Life. The similarities between the two paintings are obvious. In Woman in Three Stages Munch also displays three women of different ages. A virgin figure with her "innocent phantasies of adolescent" (Edvard Munch 84) gazes out to the sea. In the middle stands a physical mature woman, naked with her legs spread, who looks directly at the viewer. Her "seductive and provocative gaze is of such irresistible attraction that it guarantees the eternity of the human race" (Edvard Munch 84). On the right side is a darkly dressed woman, hardly visible, with a pale face that bears witness to death. "Woman in her many-sidedness", Munch wrote, "is a mystery to man. Woman at one and the same time is a saint, a whore, and an unhappy person abandoned" (Heller 34). It is this "many-sidedness" of women that also finds a clear expression in The Dance of Life.
Comparing The Dance of Life to other paintings of the Frieze of Life, one comes to notice that this painting also deals with, as Munch put it, "the battle between man and woman that is called love". Indeed, The Dance of Life seems to summarize works like Eye in Eye (c. 1894), The Kiss (c. 1897), Separation (c. 1896) and Jealousy (c. 1895). In a story like way, these paintings display the process of love, "that moves from initial flirtations, to the ecstasies of physical love consummation, then to the anxieties of jealousy and rejection" (Heller 31). Thus, the young and innocent girl in white becomes the symbol of the joyous and lighthearted beginning of a relationship between man and woman. The center couple displays the immense power of love over two beings. At this point, the couple seems unable to notice anything around them. At the end, however, we see the old, disillusioned woman as a symbol for the fleetingness of feelings and for inevitable separation.
Finally, one can find a very personal interpretation for The Dance of Life. Munch's first romantic experience with a cousin-by-marriage, to which Munch gave the pseudonym "Mrs. Heiberg", provided him with his own experience of the process of love. After an impassioned and joyous love affair she severed their relationship in the late 1880s. For Munch this was an emotionally painful experience, which he would struggle with for decades to come. "How deep of a mark she must have dug into my heart so that no other image can ever totally erase hers", Munch wrote in 1890 (Heller 28). A later love affair with Tulla Larsen, Munch found oppressive. He continually retreated from her, unable to respond to the intensity of her affection (Müller-Westermann 79). Knowing these biographical details, one might suspect that The Dance of Life is rooted in Munch's relationships with Mrs. Heiberg and Tulla Larsen. The man in the center of the painting is Munch himself, dancing with his old love, Mrs. Heiberg. Tulla Larsen is displayed on the left wanting Munch's love and on the right side, she stands rejected by him. Munch's description of the painting in his diary supports this interpretation:
I am dancing with my true love - a memory of her. A smiling, blond-haired woman enters who wishes to take the flower of love - but it won't allow itself to be taken. And on the other side one can see her dressed in black troubled by the couple dancing - rejected - as I was rejected from her [Mrs. Heiberg's] dance (Müller-Westermann 78).
As Munch was rejected by his first love, Tulla Larsen in turn is now rejected by Munch. Both of them, painted in black and turned towards each other, find themselves as partners in suffering (Müller-Westermann 79).
The possibility of various different interpretations of Munch's painting The Dance of Life is clearly fascinating. Through his revelation of his most personal experiences, Munch strives to create universal symbols and values. Thus, this painting becomes a "parable of human existence and of destiny that dominates our adventure on earth" (Edvard Munch 84).
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Eggum, Arne. "A Biographical Background." Edvard Munch. The Frieze of Life. Ed. Mara-Helen Wood. London: National Gallery Publications, 1992. 15-24.
Eggum, Arne. Edvard Munch: paintings, sketches, and studies. Trans. Ragnar Christophersen. New York: C.N. Potter, 1984.
Heller, Reinhold. "Form and Formation of Edvard Munch's Frieze of Life." Edvard Munch. The Frieze of Life. Ed. Mara-Helen Wood. London: National Gallery Publications, 1992. 25-37.
Messer, Thomas M. Edvard Munch. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985.
Müller-Westermann, Iris. "The Dance of Life." Edvard Munch. The Frieze of Life. Ed. Mara-Helen Wood. London: National Gallery Publications, 1992. 78-79.
Stang, Ragna. Edvard Munch, the man and the artist. Trans. Geoffrey Culverwell. London: Fraser, 1979.