Nov 182007

One of Edvard Munch’s chief strengths as an artist lies in his ability to delineate and convey psychological processes. He may not be an exceptional draftsman or colorist, but he knows how to construct a composition so as to communicate to the viewers on a very basic emotional level.

Generally considered a symbolist who prefigured expressionism, Munch can sometimes exhibit the impassioned, elemental thrust of van Gogh — he even had a similar tendency to swirl the skies, albeit via a gloomier, Nordic prism — though he did not adopt the shimmering brightness of impressionism, and would rather portray people than landscape.

Munch suggests feelings by strategically juxtaposing his actors in space and against each other; he shows how gestures and outward demeanor can betray inner turmoil. By distorting or simplifying the body he approaches the metaphysical, making the human form a suggestive allegory — a vehicle, a visual metaphor for sentiment. Contrasting color effects often serve to expound and underscore the main ideas.

All of these methods culminate In the Dance of Life, which becomes an example of Munch’s strength as a psychologist and observer of human emotion and sensuality. This piece demonstrates erotic attraction, lust, jealousy, sadness, and even despair.

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Dance of Life, 1900
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The defining element of the painting inevitably becomes the girl at the center, dressed in orange-red (slightly swirling), a color known to symbolize sexual attraction and passion. This color indicates the underlying reason for the congregation — an artist’s method to narrate the scene on the level of general human experience.

She and her mate resemble the rest of the couples, and it seems that they are  being picked out for their compositionally central locus, not a specific feature. All of the dancing young women could be painted the same orange-red to the same effect, but it makes more painterly sense to colorize the figure that happened to be at the center — the symbolic stand-in for the rest.

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The chaotic, dreamy dynamism of the composition prompts to interpret the foreground of the image outside the immediate context of time and place. Instead of being their own actors, the two women on the edges manifest possible emotional developments of the central female character. As it sometimes occurs in dreams, the mind clones the protagonist into several alter-actors, one to the left, another to the right.

Thus, these two girls embody the red dressed lady’s hopes and fears, one of matrimony and happiness (the white dress), the other of death, abandonment, and mourning (the black dress). Conversely, the procession may suggest a chronological setup: the girl’s adult life begins from left, with virginal white innocence and progresses right, towards encounters with men, ending with possible widowhood, separation, or some type of disappointment. Again, this reading may apply to any of the dancing pairs, the central one standing in for the rest.

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A helpful comparison can be drawn between Munch’s Dance of Life and various Marc Chagall’s, the Norwegian’s  contemporary, couples. Chagall usually painted young, embracing men and women, often husband and wife, surrounded by different idiosyncratic symbols; the models often appear to float, hover, or levitate — disjointed from physical space.

Despite some structural parallels, Chagall’s lovers differ from Munch’s in that they tend to reveal warm and calm behavior, displaying tenderness, understanding, and acceptance, all enwrapped in certainty and confidence. The northern painter’s somber subjects betray tension, unresolved desires, and psychological obstacles — quite removed from the dreamy vivaciousness of the Jewish artist.

*this article has been edited at a later date

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