The Dance of Life, 1900 Oil on canvas, 49½” x 6’3½” Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway
Even if you don’t know who Munch is, you know his work. His painting, the Scream (also called the Cry) is one of the most famous in all of art. It is distinctive in that you could be brought to it completely unprepared and immediately get the sense of it on first viewing. Or at least most of it. The Scream became a kind of logo for primal therapy for a while, but the scream Munch wanted to express was not an individual’s dismay, but rather the scream of nature itself; he was rendering the pain of all things that exist, the animate and inanimate alike.
Munch ought to be a bigger artistic hero than he is. He fought through everything: poverty, illness, madness, debauchery, the scorn and ridicule of his peers and public, and the art world power structure itself to deliver something that was fresh and original. Not too shabby. And while his work might never make your heart stop from the sheer beauty of it like Van Gogh’s can do, it remains spectacular and thought provoking. Munch was a great communicator. His soul was a poet’s soul and he worked in visual metaphor. The Dance of Life is, I think, the central piece to his fin-de-siècle opus, The Frieze of Life.
I have read a few articles about this work that relate the figures to real people in Munch’s life, and perhaps they are correct. Munch was a great diarist and he may have made it plain exactly what he had in mind and from whom he’d been inspired; but I don’t really care. I think what he delivers on the canvas here goes beyond personal relationships and speaks to fundamental human perceptions about one’s own place in the scheme of things.
We see a group of couples dancing on the shore. Some commentators talk about the reflection of the moon in the water and its relationship to the dancers, but I think this is a little silly since we know from so many other works that this is just the way he liked to render the moon at night on water. In the forefront of the picture a young couple are in the embrace of dance, he in a dark suit, she in a long flowing dress of blood-red. If you haven’t seen one of his paintings in real life it is difficult to imagine how vivid his colors can be. He uses paint by the pound, and the colors are so deep and rich and shiny they are like candy. So we know this couple is our focus. To the left a young woman in a long white shift with a slight floral pattern stands. She reaches toward a spindly cane of flowering shrub, or perhaps she has just planted it and is stepping back. The painting uses the limitations of time itself, it shows us both actions with one posture leaving it to our imaginations to decide which act is true. To the right stands a second woman dressed all in black, hands clasped before her at the level of her pelvis.
Birth and death, eh? Not so subtle are we?
But wait. This is the dance of life. These women are at a dance and they are not dancing. Perhaps they are chaperones there to make us behave, to stymie our natural, dangerous urges. Indeed, I think they are, and they are all focused on our couple. And yes, they are birth and death, too, but see, is this not the same woman? The woman on the right is certainly older, or seems so, but perhaps she is simply more somber. I think Munch is telling us birth and death are the same. Because we are alive and we are cursed with intellect, we are conscious of both birth and death; because of that consciousness, our will and desires are stymied.
My dogs know nothing of birth and death. They are happy all the time. They are not at all conscious of eternity peeking over their shoulder, prodding them to get…this…done! Now look at the other dancers in this picture. They are just like my dogs, happy all the time. See how they sway, how their bodies rock. They are swept up in a furious, primal, sexual dance. Look at the naked glee on the man’s face immediately behind the dark woman; do you sense his hunger? Our couple knows these people are behind them, and I sense they are envious of their freedom. But they are trapped by too much knowledge. Time is a warden, death awaits, there is work to do. Now, while we are ripe with blood-red fertility and our need to procreate; now, while we are swelled with the blood-red of responsibility and our duty to care for those who need us; now while we are choked with the blood-red of resentment.
That is the real Dance of Life. It is a battle between the happy-go-lucky dog that nature wants us to be versus the responsible builder of reality, the creator of civilization our hubris and intellect demands. It is a sulking picture. Everyone else, it seems to say, everything else gets to enjoy itself and be free and just live, but not us. We shuffle despairingly back and forth between birth and death like so many dime-a-dance girls, bored because our dance is so achingly dull, and sad because it is so god-damned short. Yet, while we dance we can close our eyes together, we can clasp hands and embrace in the blood-red glow of love and warmth, and the rest of the world can go hang itself for all we care, and birth and death will just have to watch and wait.
We are in no hurry. And we are at a dance!