Dagny Juel – Siren of the “Black Piglet”

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.

11 thoughts on “Dagny Juel – Siren of the “Black Piglet”

  1. Tanya says:

    What a beautiful site you have – excellent writing, interesting. Love it. I like this article on Munch, I have a small copy of Ashes which hangs on a wall and have always loved his work and I enjoyed reading something more about his wild, tragic life.

  2. artmodel says:

    Tanya,

    Your compliments warm my heart, thank you for them! And thanks for visiting Museworthy. Writing this post on Munch was educational for me, and I gained a whole new appreciation for his work as a result. You have great taste in art, as Ashes is a fascinating piece.

    Thank you again for your comments, and I hope you keep reading (and enjoying!) this blog.

    Claudia

  3. robert bent says:

    Claudia-
    Again, exceptional work on your part. Munch’s painting has always been of interest to me but your comments put some perspective on his talent. I guess I am going to have to start hitting the bar scene if I am going to find my Juel! It seems that the tensions/dramas you describe in the personal lives of painters, writers, philosophical types are the catalysts for the fermentation necessary for creative work; like the body digests, so to the creative spirit converts/translates. I’ve always thought that good art comes from probing things at the margins….it’s the edges of things and individuals which offer the best opportunitity for creative insights and inspiration. Muse-finding is tough work, though!
    Best,
    Rob

  4. artmodel says:

    Rob,

    I enjoyed reading your incisive comments! They are a pleasure, as always.

    To me, it is essential to describe the personal tribulations, psychologies, and backgrounds of artists and models because it plays such a significant role in the work. It makes art discussion and analysis much more accessible (and enjoyable) when we enhance the human qualities of the people involved.

    I read so many art history articles which examine a famous work of art, and much of the time I find them painfully academic. Dry, elitist, as if they are written only for fellow art historians. And I never feel I understand the artist at all after reading them; what motivated him, what circumstances shaped his vision, or why he was drawn to a particular muse. Who was he? Who was the model? What was going on between them, their friends, the art community, and the world at large? Those are the kinds of things that interest me.

    I love what you said about “probing the things at the margins”. That is so well said. You got me thinking a lot about that! Truth, or reality, may very well lurk at the margins.

    As far as finding a muse, I bet it’s hard work! From writing this blog, even I have discovered that it can happen anywhere, anytime. The famous artists found them in pretty separate and distinct ways, and defined the role of “muse” quite differently. Degas, for example, seems to have preferred some distance between himself and his muses. Toulouse-Lautrec, on the other hand, was inspired by the women who accepted him on a personal level. Others, like Picasso, used their own lovers as muses and models.

    Rob, I wouldn’t rule out the bar scene. Hey, it worked for Munch! You may still find your Dagny.

    Thanks so much for your comments.

    Claudia

  5. Munch is a great example of a particular type of artist.

    There is a dilemma. Munch’s paintings are ground-breaking, not masterpieces in painting technique but masterpieces in disturbing images.

    Though some of his paintings are less disturbing, they conjure up a version of the truth that we know, but expose a less ‘pretty’ version of the ‘facts’ as we would like to know them!

    An aspiring artist needs to do ‘some thing special’ to get noticed? Does the ‘something’ have to be outrageous? Weird? Horrific? Ugly? Or even dare I say it beautiful?

    If a friend said, ‘I love Munch’s work’. Would you say he or she had good taste? If however he or she said, ‘ Munch was a great artist, he makes me think, he frightens me, he makes me feel uncomfortable, he makes me see things a little differently’ then we start to see the different rolls that artists can take and also to see the difference in those that view art.

    To think or not to think, both have their merits!

  6. artmodel says:

    Robert,

    You make such interesting points- timeless ones which have been contemplated for years. You’re getting into the “what is art?” terrain! And what a thorny topic it can be.

    Munch’s images are powerful indeed. Like you said, they can easily be called “disturbing”, which is why I am always curious about an artist’s personal background, temperament, and general outlook on life. It explains a great deal why they painted in particular style, chose their subject matter, and their models.

    I happen to like art that doesn’t necessarily “disturb”, but more provokes emotional reaction of some kind in the viewer. Not “pretty” never bothers me much, which is not to say that I have no use for pretty either (especially if it’s a portrait of me! 🙂 ) But I do like those “groundbreaking” types, not just in painting but in all of the arts. I guess that says something about me and my outlook too!

    I am reminded of the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and how it caused a riot and mayhem. Talk about provoking emotions! So many of the works that created controversy at the time they were introduced – aroused fear and indignation and all that- are now respected works because they were seminal, original, and unorthodox. But people tend to panic at bold, new things. And there is no better vehicle to shake things up, and break tired old conventions, than art.

    Thanks for your comments, Robert!

    Claudia

  7. Rog Lyngaas says:

    Of course, I soak up anything about E. Munch. Thank-you for your comments on Dagny Juel and Edvard Munch.

    …rog

  8. artmodel says:

    Rog, you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed the Munch post, and thanks for commenting!

    Claudia

  9. caseyklahn says:

    I revisited this fun post because I’m reading a bio on EM now. Beyond The Scream, by Sue Prideaux. It’s possible that Dagny may have been Munch’s only true love, because wonton women were otherwise his downfall. She proved to be both muse and tonic to him.

    It is said that her uncanny and singular personality was such that the mere touch of her hand on one’s sleeve resolved your paintings.

    She’s deeply mythical, but the what else is great art history for? Glad you wrote on EM and Dagny.

    Cheerful Christmas,

    KC

  10. vindalv says:

    Hi. 🙂 Thank you for this, I just needed some inspiration for a talk on Dagny and her friends in Berlin.

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