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Munch: The Dance of Life

by John Cobley

Monday Sep 19th, 2022




Dance of Life (1899-1900) is generally regarded as one of Munch’s major paintings, and most of the literature refer to it and briefly analyse it, not always accurately. There has been only one thorough examination (Müller-Westermann, Munch by Himself, Chapter 3). This essay will carefully examine the 1899-1900 painting as well as the preliminary 1898 sketch and Munch’s 1925 copy. It will find that Dance of Life is a personal statement on marriage—an interpretation that hasn’t been made before.


Dance of Life can be usefully divided into two parts: the foreground with the four figures and the background. The four foreground figures are carefully arranged in the tableau vivant style. Munch makes use of this popular 19th century form of entertainment where actors would pose silently to create a dramatic scene. By using a tableau vivant, he is asking for interpretation, not just providing aesthetic pleasure. And then, the interpretation of this tableau vivant is complemented by the background scene. 


Previous Interpretations

Most short analyses of this painting barely exceed a paragraph or two. Some are incorrect. Several critics (i.e., Messer, 1986, and Templeton, 2008) see the image of the three stages of woman, which Munch painted several times, as the key to Dance of Life. While this image is echoed in the three women in the foreground, this perspective does not lead to the main meaning of the painting. Nor do some of the descriptions of the background. Critics often wrongly refer to swirling figures in the background (Messer: “frenetic”; Jay Clarke, 2009: “ecstatically”) and are perhaps influenced by Munch’s early words on the preliminary sketch (“the raging mob storms about in wild embrace”); however, only two of the nine figures are moving, making the background’s effect on the tableau foreground quite different from frenetic and ecstatic. 


Another issue is the identification of the three foreground women. Some writers see Tulla Larsen in all three women. (i.e., Heller, 1984: The three stages of woman personified in Tulla.”) But the central woman is clearly not Tulla, and the correct identification of her is crucial in the interpretation of the painting. Yet another misreading is over the physical position of the two central figures; they are not “sunk within each other,” as Messer claims. The man, presumably Munch, is clearly holding back (“stiff and numb,” as Müller-Westermann puts it in EM:  The Frieze of Life, 2005), allowing only a formal dance connection with his partner. 


The only thorough coverage of Dance of Life is in fact by Müller-Westermann. I agree with much of her description of the painting. But I do have two disagreements: 1. The Munch figure is not, as she describes “completely at the mercy of her erotic aura”; 2. The figures in the background are not “dancing boisterously and kissing passionately, though she is correct in describing the Munch figure as “Stiff.” She is also, I believe, correct when she definitively names the woman in red as Munch’s first lover, Millie Thaulow. Müller-Westermann quotes a 1902 written comment by Munch on Dance of Life: “I was dancing with my first [true] love.” That quote surely clinches Müller-Westermann’s identification.




The Sketch

The preliminary sketch that Munch made in 1898 (above), contains the germ of the final painting. Ragna Stang includes it in her Edvard Munch (1979), labeling it as “Sketch for Dance of Life.” Accompanying this sketch she quotes Munch: “I have begun a new picture, Dance of Life. One light summer’s night, in the middle of a meadow, a young priest is dancing with a woman with flowing hair. They stare into each other’s eyes, and her hair wraps itself around his head.” This is an accurate of the sketch except that her hair is not “wrapping” round her partner’s head. Munch, the priest, is dancing very formally—as befits a man of the cloth. Their bodies are not touching. The couple’s pose contrasts the dancers in the background, whom Munch describes as “a mass of whirling people, fat men biting women on the neck, caricatures and strong men entwining women.” Overall, the sketch shows the Munch figure as a staid Christian lover in contrast to the frenzied Dionysian lovers of Norwegian society beyond him.


Changes from the Sketch

The main change from the sketch to the painting is the addition of two foreground figures, universally accepted as depictions of Tulla Larsen as a young woman and as an old woman. As well, there are significant changes to the dancing couple. Their pose is much more sexual. Their bodies are close together. The woman has her arm further around “Munch’s” shoulder and her red dress encloses his feet more emphatically. “Munch’s” body position has changed dramatically. The formal upright stance in the sketch is replaced by a very suggestive lowering of the hips—bended knees and projecting buttocks. Also his right arm has moved suggestively over her body. The colours add to these new sexual elements: the red of her dress outlines her partner and adds tinges to his clothes. The Munch figure as gone from a chaste formal dancing priest to a sexual partner.


The dancing couple is watched by the two Tulla figures (I will call them White Tulla and Black Tulla). Diagonals from the corners connect the eyes of the two Tullas with the touching groins of the dancing couple (see….). They are watching the couple, although the flat perspective of the painting doesn’t show this clearly. White Tulla wears a white dress whose flower pattern echoes the flowers that she gestures towards. Black Tulla has a gaunt aged face and holds her hands over her groin. There is clearly a before-and-after relationship between the two Tullas.


The scene behind the four main figures has also changed from the sketch. There is much less movement by the black and white figures. Only the dancing couple on the left conveys motion. The figures on the right are static. The only overt sexuality is in the figure next to the black Tulla, a lascivious overpowering man. The other background figures merely depict the joys of a midsummer dance. One of them, just to the left of M’s head, portrays something different. The deftly painted young woman suggests purity and beauty. The proximity of her head to “Munch’s” suggests that an attractive, virginal woman is also in his thoughts. This figure has received little critical attention, but I believe it has relevance to the meaning of the painting. Thus the background has changed from a frenzied dance to a typical outdoor dance with varied behaviour.


The painting is presided over by Munch’s idiosyncratic depiction of the moon. Symbolically, of course it suggests romance. But, as has often been pointed out, it is also suggestive of crucifixion and sacrifice. Significantly it is placed close to the young woman behind Munch’s head. 


Munch uses two other symbols that add to the meaning of the picture. Just below the moon figure is the suggestion of a masked face, which brings up the issue of hidden identity and the excitement of bals masques. And at each side of the Black Tulla is a pair of threatening eyes. Neither of these symbols gives a clear message, so perhaps they can be seen as having private significance for Munch. Suggestive symbols do appear in Munch’s early works.


The black dress


Before I move to the meaning of Dance of Life, I would like to introduce another aspect that has not been discussed before. I believe that Munch has discreetly buried a scene in the black dress of the Black Tulla. It is a forest scene with at least eight large tree trunks. And in the right half of the scene he depicts the vague outline of a naked woman lying on her back with her legs splayed. The top part of her body, which is farthest from the eye, is indistinct, but the lower part is clearer. Clearest is her left foot at the right-hand corner and then her leg. Also on the lower left is a large vague face, with eyes, nose and mouth. This face is in the style of several earlier paintings like Jealousy (1895) where both the Munch figure and the red dress figure also appear.


I suggest that this forest scene recalls a humiliating sexual experience Munch had with Milly Thaulow, his first love. He described it himself, using the third person: “They went into the opening in the trees—tall white birches to both sides and black firs…. In the wet forest they are again talking a walk. He sees her breasts rising and falling. If only he dared…. He wanted the thing he had dreamed of. He lay on top of her—he wanted—They said nothing—he felt humiliated—a tremendous tiredness and sorrow. She stroked his hair. ‘Poor boy.’ He walked away with his head in his hands.” (Quoted by Sue Prideaux, EM. Her source is T2781 of Munch’s writings)


Thus in Dance of Life Munch includes not only his dilemma with Tulla but also something of his past—a humiliating sexual experience that is relevant to his current relationship with Tulla Larsen. The painting is really yet another self-portrait, not a physical one but a mental one. Munch is portraying his current situation as it relates to Tulla, who at the time was desperate enough to chase him all over Europe. He has a choice between a free life and marriage. Free life is depicted in his dancing partner as well as the background scene. Marriage is depicted in the “book-ends” of a young and an old Tulla. The book-ends positioning of the two Tullas in the tableau suggests the possibility of capture; the young Tulla offers an attractive option, the aged Tulla shows what he will end up with if he marries. The background shows the life that marriage would take away from him—freedom to enjoy a free social life and pleasure. The painting is thus both a dance of life and a dilemma of life. And by literally running away from Tulla several times, Munch showed that he didn’t want to sacrifice himself to marriage.






A later copy of  Dance of Life (above) was made by Munch a quarter of a century later in 1925. It provides some interesting insights into the original painting. While adhering to the basic structure of the original, he made several changes in the copy. Gone is Millie’s hand around “Munch’s” neck, gone is the mask, gone are the two “eyes” around Black Tulla, gone is some of the emphasis on Munch’s posterior, gone is the thickness and penetration of “Munch’s” right arm, and gone is the forest scene in black Tulla’s dress. Added are White Tulla’s feet, more flowers between White Tulla and Munch, and three ships on the fjord. 


What do these changes by a much older 61-year-old Munch suggest? Certainly he’s made the dancing couple more formal by removing her right hand and by moderating “Munch’s” body and arm positions. As well, he left out some of his earlier idiosyncratic touches: the forest scene in Black Tulla’s dress, the mask, and the “eyes.” As for the sailboat placed by “Munch’s” head and between the two dancers, maybe he is seeing it as a means of escape. Overall, he’s slightly moderated the original to make it less personal.


There is also a significant change in the colours, perhaps to emphasize evening light. But apart from making “Millie’s” dress a richer red and Black Tulla’s black dress blue and scarlet, I can’t see any other significance to the meaning of the painting. Probably the change in colours reflects a change in Munch’s style over the 25 years. At least one critic has heaped praise on this copy (Elizabeth Prelinger, After the Scream, 136). Clearly over a quarter century Munch has moved away from the flat, Gauguin-influenced style of the original.                                      


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