Sex, Art & Vampires: The Friendship of Stanisław Przybyszewski & Edvard Munch
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default, Sex, Art & Vampires:
The Friendship of Stanisław Przybyszewski & Edvard Munch, ‘Adoration (Dagny Przybyszewski)‘, Marcin Maciejowski, 2014, oil on canvas, 100 x 140 cm, photo: courtesy of Raster Gallery, center, marcin-maciejowski-adoration-dagny-przybyszewska-2014-oil-on-canvas-100-x-140-cm-raster.jpg
‘Rarely have I had so close a spiritual bond with any artist as that which I had with Munch’, Stanisław Przybyszewski wrote of the best-known Norwegian painter. At that time, the two were further connected both by ties of close friendship and by their multiple erotic liaisons within the Scandinavian bohemian community.
The Scandinavian colony
‘It was in the autumn of 1892 that a whole host of Scandinavian poets and thinkers settled in Berlin,’ recalled the Finnish writer Adolf Paul. The Norwegian Gabriel Finne wrote: ‘We Scandinavians – Strindberg, Gunnar Helberg, Drachmann, I and one fellow Paul – we are almost always together, sitting together in a small winery.’ That small winery came to be known as ‘The Black Piglet’ and that company of Scandinavians was soon joined by a certain Pole named Stanisław Przybyszewski.
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The twenty-four-year-old future ‘King of the Gypsies’ was at the time still studying medicine, writing his first essays, editing the Workers’ Gazette and living with Marta Foerder. She was remembered by the many friends who passed through the tiny Berlin flat of the author of The Synagogue of Satan as a plain woman, utterly dedicated to Stach. The writer himself declared that she stayed with him only out of pity and that his first-born son, Boleś, was conceived whilst he was drunk.
The couple’s relatively unremarkable life would change significantly the following spring. In the meantime, Przybyszewski published his first significant texts and became involved in Scandinavian non-conformist circles. Przybyszewski’s mentor in those circles was, at first, the Nietzschean poet Ola Hansson who was later succeeded in that role by August Strindberg. Another member of the crowd was the painter, recently arrived from Norway, Edvard Munch, but all the comradely-collegial and mentor-student relationships within the all-male literary and artistic coterie would soon be shaken to their core upon the arrival in their midst of yet another Norwegian newcomer – this time, a woman: Dagny Juel.
Wives & lovers
The red-headed daughter of a physician with musical ambitions was preceded by legendary tales. She arrived in Berlin together with Munch, but he wasn’t quick to introduce her to the others, heightening their curiosity by teasing them with stories about her. Strindberg notes that Munch ‘kept her all to himself like a miser’. (Over time, Dagny would be linked to each of the two in short-lived affairs. ) When, in early March 1893, she finally made her debut appearance at ‘The Black Piglet’, her circle of admirers, as anticipated, widened at once. Among the many suitors seeking to win her affections was Przybyszewski and, on 18 August of that year, they wed and Dagny soon became the mother of the writer’s next child.
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When, in the spring of the following year, Przybyszewski visited his parents’ home in Wągrowiec, he denied rumours of his marriage and laughed off talk of any illegitimate children. In Wągrowiec, word of his visit greatly cheered Bogumiła Łukomska, who was officially supposed to be Przybyszewski’s fiancée. In 1896, Marta – by then the mother of the ‘Gypsy King’s’ three children – committed suicide. This event caused a huge stir in Berlin and there was no lack of speculation that the writer might somehow have had a hand in it. In any case, with this, the Berlin chapter of Stach’s story comes to a close.
Three years later, during a week-long visit to his friend Jan Kasprowicz in Lviv [Polish: Lwów], Przybyszewski wasted no time and managed to have two simultaneous whirlwind affairs. The first was with the young painter Aniela Pajakówna who bore him his next child, the future author Stanisława Przybyszewska. The second affair was with Jadwiga Kasprowiczowa – at the time, still the wife of his host Jan Kasprowicz. She, soon afterwards, would become Przybyszewski’s latest wife.
When Dagny ceased to hold Przybyszewski’s attention, she took off on a journey with her lover, the poet Wincenty Korab-Brzozozwski and, after a very long time, she caught up with Stach in Warsaw. In the beginning of June 1901, the couple planned a trip to Tyflis [today’s Tbilisi] to the estate of the parents of the young poet Władysław Emeryk, who was fascinated both by the writings of Stach and by the personality of Dagny. At the last moment, Przybyszewski cancelled his trip, promising to catch up shortly. On 5 June, Emeryk first shot Dagny and then shot himself in the temple. Before pulling the trigger for the last time, he managed to write a short farewell note to his idol. It began:
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Dear Stach! What can I say! (…) I did what you should have done.
Never having made peace with Dagny’s choice of Przybyszewski over him, Munch had prophesied:
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I am well aware that sometime she will come to Poland with him, fall in with a coterie of nihilists and hang herself along with him or go into exile. Unless, that is, she dies first from a total lack of means for living.
And he wasn’t too far wrong.
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Dagny Przybyszewska & Władysław Emeryk in their coffins; a scan from the article 'The Literature of Coffins' by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński in 'Literary News' (Wiadomości Literackie), 1933, no. 44, p. 1, photo: unknown photographer / Wikimedia Commons
‘Munch is so unlucky in love’
The Norwegian painter also had his share of stormy romances. Munch owed to his relationship with Tulla Larssen the loss of his left middle finger. In his diaries, he described the scene of Tulla feigning her death and later he wrote of her threats of suicide. Munch allegedly lost his finger when he blocked the barrel of Tulla’s revolver as she fired, but the date of his release from the hospital suggests that the injury occurred several days later in his home.Yet it wasn’t Tulla, but rather Dagny, about whom the painter obsessed. Her face adorns dozens of women in his paintings, sometimes appearing in several versions developing a single motif. Dagny lent her face to Przybyszewski’s Madonna, framed by a border of sperm and a dead embryo, intertwining images of desecrated holiness, erotica and death. Alongside Przybyszewski and Munch himself, Dagny appears in several versions of Jealousy. In the first version, an eerie image of the author tightly fills half of the canvas, while in the background Dagny as the biblical Eve offers Munch an apple in the Garden of Eden.
In later works, Dagny’s flowing red hair virtually assumes a life of its own, wreathing her head like ivy, enwrapping or smothering her lovers. It represents beauty and also an indomitable nature, a fascination undergirded with a decadent misogyny growing out of the social transformations to which the efforts of the suffragettes were gradually leading.
‘I lived in times of change – at the height of the emancipation of women. A woman then was one who seduced, lured and cheated men – they were the times of Carmen – in those times of change, man was rendered weaker,’ Munch would recall years later.
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Przybyszewski, for his part, wrote about his friend:
Munch is unlucky in love. Love for him is a terrible torture, a painful secret, a gift from Pandora, who brought to the world fear, decay and pain. And the forlorn and profound artist-philosopher wanders in a dark circle of dark mysteries: What does the power of lust signify? What makes the blood race in a mad rush and forces it to return to the heart?
‘The Meteor of Young Poland’ doesn’t mention, though, that he played a significant role in bringing about the misfortunes in his own love life. If Munch often fell victim to ill-fated infatuations, just so did Przybyszewski provoke a series of tragedies. He unhesitatingly seduced a woman who was romancing his friends at the time (Dagny) and he just as readily slept with his friends’ wives (Jadwiga). He burdened two young lovers with children to raise alone (Marta, Aniela) and left in his wake the tragic deaths of two former lovers – one by suicide (Marta) and one by murder at the hands of another lover (Dagny). In both of the latter cases, he reacted to the news of their deaths by writing to their current lovers with expressions of thinly-veiled relief that these previous relationships now no longer stood in the way of any future relationships.
Painted preparations for the soul
Munch’s first Berlin exhibition, which opened shortly after the artist’s arrival in the city in 1892, was closed down a week after opening. After being ejected from the Kunstverein, the artist himself organised an exhibit the following year in the private Equitable-Pallais galleries, but the Berlin public unanimously derided the ‘daubings’ of the Scanadinavian artist. Przybyszewski did not share the popular opinion. On the contrary, this is the first time that the Polish poet was enchanted by the work of any painter. He saw in Munch an ideal reflection of his own artistic conceptions.
In 1894, Przybyszewski published Psychological Naturalism – his first work of art criticism and his first study of Munch’s work. In it, he interprets and to some extent gives shape to his friend’s creations and affects the way they would be received henceforth. Regarding the woman in the painting entitled by the Norwegian Love and Pain – of course, one with fiery hair and resembling Dagny – he writes:
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She bit into the man's neck with razor-sharp teeth, she smeared his face with the blood of her scarlet hair, she grasped his head with her powerful hand of unbridled lust and suffocates him and bites – and bites. And in the background, a chaotic scene of bloody-hued thunderbolts, toxic green – an angry chaos of assorted blotches, colours, spots – yet like delicate crystals such as one sees on a frosted windowpane.
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In Munch’s interpretation, the scene in his painting – to be known henceforward as Vampire – is somewhat more complex. The woman does indeed dominate the bound male figure, but she also cares for him. She isn’t biting his neck; she is kissing it. Nevertheless, Munch, too, would refer to later versions of the work as Vampire.
In Przybyszewski’s Kiss, he sees a reflection of his theory about androgyny:
Two human figures whose faces have melted into one another (…) one can only see the molten faces, perhaps an enormous ear gone deaf in this ecstasy of blood, like a puddle of liquid bodies.
First and foremost, however, the author saw in Munch’s phantasmic figures, depicted on a background reflecting their spiritual state, a fundamental breakthrough in the history of art. As in Przybyszewski’s writings, Munch’s art seeks to bare the true, naked soul, that which is hidden even from oneself, that provokes anxiety, distaste and loathing. In Stach’s opinion, all artists prior to Munch captured the external world, whether naturalistically or impressionistically. Munch, though, broke with the dictates of reality, shattering the barriers of posturing and, with the help of colours, presenting the viewer with the internal, psychological truth:
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He paints as if he can see only naked individuality which has turned its glance away from the world of phenomena and into the depths of its own existence. […] His images are simply painted specimens of the soul when the voice of reason is utterly silenced and all conceptual activity ceases – specimens of the soul as it twists yet stands erect amongst the wild gusts of wind, drying up in melancholy dullness, crying out in pain and howling from hunger.
In his study of Munch, the writer sketches out the origins of the theory of expressionism, but he also doesn’t hesitate to indulge in petty fraud, mythologising his own role in it. He creates a myth about his influence on the creation of Munch’s best-known painting The Scream, claiming that its origin lay in Przybyszewski’s poem Totenmesse (known in Poland by the Latin title Requiem Aeternam) published in the same year in which the first iteration of The Scream was displayed. However, it is known that Munch had earlier made several studies that would ultimately lead to The Scream as we know it. All the same, there is no denying certain similarities in the narratives of both men.
In the proto-expressionist story published by Przybyszewski in 1917 and also entitled The Scream, we read:
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Suddenly he heard a frightful scream. No! He didn't hear it; he saw it. He saw precisely how the air was ripped apart, ploughed apart by the flaming blade of an enormous bolt of lightning; it was like fire pouring forth from a yawning dragon's maw and the sky was flooded with a flood of ferocious colours, the likes of which no human eye had ever seen.
In his fictionalised diary, this is how Munch describes the origins of his Scream:
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I was walking along a path with two friends. The sun was nearly setting when suddenly the sky was filled with a bloody red hue. I stopped, feeling exhausted and leaned against a railing. Across the black-and-blue fjord, one could see blood and tongues of flame. My friends continued on, but I stood there and trembled with emotion – I sensed an unending scream flowing through nature.
Stach’s long shadow
Przybyszewski’s texts about Munch were quickly translated into many languages which led to the artist’s increased popularity throughout Central Europe. In Poland, the most explicit proof of that could be seen in the work of Wojciech Weiss, whom Stach had introduced to the work of the Norwegian artist. The Young Polish artist created his own variations on Munch’s paintings and gave them titles almost identical to Munch’s, like Lovers in the Waves and Vampire. Weiss’s Spring pays homage to Munch’s Youth and Composition (Lust) to his woodcut In Man’s Brain. Weiss’s best-known work Melancholic relates on the one hand to Munch’s motif and, on the other hand, to Przybyszewski’s work originallly titled Totenmesse.
The figures of Przybyszewski and Dagny and the texts of the Polish poet left their mark not only on the work of Munch, but also on the way his work was perceived for practically a century to come. He himself recalled years later:
I painted a number of paintings of those people, among others one that I called 'Jealousy' (…) That tale of the boudoir foiled many of my plans.
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Munch’s work from the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century – as interpreted by Przybyszewski – came to mark the best-known period of the Norwegian painter’s oeuvre. But the painter far outlived his interpreter friend, whose penchant for alcohol and narcotics did not serve him well. Munch lived until 1944, remaining an active artist until the very end.
A renewed appreciation of Munch may result from the publication of the book So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch in March 2019 by another well-known Norwegian, the author, Karl Ove Knausgård. The author of My Struggle, raised surrounded by widely reproduced copies of Munch’s paintings, set as his goal to see through Munch’s works that had been so thoroughly commented upon and interpreted as to be by now nearly transparent. In this new chapter, the iconic image is not The Scream or Vampire, but rather a simple landscape from 1915 showing a field of cabbage in which Knausgård observes ‘the desire to disappear and become one with the universe’. It is about time that we step out of the boudoir and into the fresh air.
Originally written in Polish, Oct 2019, translated by Yale Reisner, June 2020
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