Vampire, Edvard Munch’s famous painting, was a title assigned by a later interpretation, influencing the modern understanding of the art for over a century. The colloquial title became popular through a Polish Poet, Stanisław Przybyszewski, in 1983, who described the painting as “a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.” Love and Pain is the painting’s official title, with an alternative name ascribed by Munch, Woman Kissing Man on the Neck in 1918. It is difficult not to see a darker interpretation between the two figures; the painting shows sadomasochism elements through the male figure’s embracement of pain.
On its surface, Vampire depicts a lugubrious man receiving a kiss and a soft embrace from a nude woman while contoured in a shadowy aura. The man, defined by cold, dark colors, is without a definable form; his face pale and corpse-like while appearing weak and wrought with sorrow as he actively seeks the comfort of this woman. The relationship between these two figures is uncertain; you can even speculate that she is a prostitute or even his dead sister who died of tuberculosis. A few years later, in 1897, Munch’s painting, The Kiss, shares a striking resemblance to Vampire; the couple’s definition is lost to the dark, harsh coloring, and their faces blend as they kiss, emphasizing a frightening sense of unification or togetherness.
It is essential to understanding Edvard Munch’s work by discussing the relationship between madness, genius, and Nordau’s Degeneration, a book that attacks degenerate art and its effects on society. Johan Scharffenberg, a Norwegian psychiatrist, uses this book to further critique Munch’s work, specifically his Self-Portrait with Cigarette: “like many others of his generation, Munch considered illness as a paradigm for creativity. Illness suggested a condition in which the aesthetic imagination could not exceed the constraints imposed by the rational mind.” Munch embraced the idea of insanity that defined the bohemian lifestyle.
The more I think about it, the less the painting seems a sick man created it amid anguish, but from a man who understands suffering through years of anxiety and sadness perpetuated by the exploration of suffering through art and being fully conscious about the genius that comes from that suffering. Edvard Munch deliberately pushes these concepts through his work, knowing the reactions he would receive. The work pointedly taunts the viewer to perceive this as something more than just a woman comforting a man, but really, that is probably all that it is.