Would an absinthe-swilling, free-love espousing, tabletop-dancing Norwegian wild child make a good artists’ model? You bet your ass she would. Expressionist painter Edvard Munch certainly thought so. A local beer hall is as good a place as any for an artist to meet his muse.
The year was 1893. The place was a tiny Berlin bar called Zum Schwarzen Frekel, or “The Black Piglet”. Munch was in town for an exhibition of his work and while there, befriended Swedish playwright August Strindberg and Polish poet and occultist Stanislaw Przybyszewski. Typical of avante-garde circles, the group congregated in a drinking establishment to discuss art, philosophy, and the human condition (and get sloshed in the process!).
Enter Dagny Juel. The well-educated daughter of a Norwegian doctor became a regular habitue of The Black Piglet, and instantly seduced the artsy clan with her nonconformist attitude and beguiling qualities. Dagny was reportedly “thin and flat-chested”, but had a beautiful smile and infectious laugh. And she could handily drink the men under the table. Her capacity for absinthe was almost inhuman. (I tried that stuff once and it is rough!) Dagny commanded attention, had virtually no inhibitions, and was quite the hell-raiser down at The Black Piglet. Her magnetic presence and personality inevitably led to intimate involvements with the male bohemian crowd. And harrowing times would follow for everyone.
Photo of Dagny:
Munch is of course most famous for his painting The Scream, but the titles of his other works present an insight into his angst-ridden psychology. They include Ashes, Jealousy, The Sin, and Death in the Sick Room. Yes, this guy was all about darkness and pain and anguish. But he had good reason. Both Munch’s mother and sister died young of tuberculosis. Another sister suffered from severe mental illness. And his father was a stern man who repeatedly warned the young Edvard, himself a sickly child, that he would burn in hell for his sins. So it’s no surprise that Munch’s outlook on life was oppressed with pessimism and despair. He said of his childhood, “Illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle”. That is unbelievably sad. I really feel for the guy.
The depressive Munch was powerfully drawn to this independent, free-spirited 25 year-old femme-fatale. And he was not alone in his attraction to this young woman. Strindberg had a brief but volatile affair with her. German writer Adolph Paul was also infatuated with her, as was Przybyszewski whom Dagny would later marry. It is unclear whether Dagny and Munch had a sexual relationship, though we can speculate that it’s more likely than not. What we do know for sure is that Dagny was the model for some of Munch’s most significant works. Here she is in his painting Madonna, a most unorthodox portrayal of Mary, mother of Christ:
This painting was among the pieces stolen in the 2004 art heist at the Munch Museum in Oslo. Luckily it was recovered, but with some tears, holes, and other minor damage.
Here is Dagny again, in Munch’s Ashes. Not only is this a vivid window into a man’s dark, tormented soul, but it’s a powerful illustration of the chemistry between artist and muse, and the potent art that is created as a result:
Despite whatever turbulence, sexual liasions, and obssessive dramas were taking place during those heady times, it’s clear that Dagny and Munch worked very well together. Quite a formidable artistic pairing.
Dagny Juel’s life came to a tragic end. Her marriage to Stanislaw Przybyszewski was disastrous. Although she bore him two children, they both had numerous affairs over the years. And his alcoholism soon became out-of-control and destructive. In 1901, Dagny was murdered in a Tblisi hotel room, shot by a jealous young lover. Her five year old son, Zenon, witnessed the tragedy.
As for Munch, he never married. He suffered a nervous breakdown and in 1908 was confined to a sanatorium for eight months. His treatment apparently worked, as he emerged somewhat healthier, with his anxieties alleviated enough for him to life the rest of his life productively. He continued to paint and, unlike his family history, lived to be 80 years old.
By the way, here’s something I found interesting. Predictably, Munch’s Berlin exhibition back in 1893 earned negative reviews. And outrage to boot. The critics labeled him a “Nordic dauber and poisoner of art”. Even Kaiser Wilhelm himself spoke out against it. As usual, the art establishment got itself all in a tizzy over a bold new artist who addressed dark, disturbing themes. How many times in history does this happen? So yes, Munch had created a huge fury of controversy. But he wasn’t stupid, that’s for sure. His vociferous detractors had done him a great favor. Regarding the big cause-celebre over his art, Munch wrote to his aunt in Norway, “a better advertisement I couldn’t have wished for”. Smart man. Publicity is publicity. Whether it’s 19th century Europe or the 21st century Internet age, it’s funny how some things never change.