‘Edvard Munch is primarily thought of as a painter, but he experimented with printmaking throughout his career,’ says Charles Scott, Prints and Multiples specialist at Christie’s in London. ‘He was extremely prolific in the medium and made many hundreds of impressions of different subjects. Munch was also a very technical printmaker, and enjoyed experimenting with textures and tones. None of his prints was done on a whim.’
In Vampire II, executed between 1895 and 1902, a flame-haired woman wraps her arms around a man who has lowered his head into her lap. The woman’s eyes are closed; she seems about to bite his neck. This subject would become one of the most important in the artist’s entire oeuvre. Having first visited the theme in oil, Munch returned to it again and again, creating a total of 10 different paintings and two versions in print. Of the two print versions he produced, the first was in black and white, while in the second he experimented with colour.
As originally imagined, the work was to be part of the series Munch called the Frieze of Life : an ever-expanding range of paintings exploring angst, love, sex and death (among the pieces intended for the cycle were The Scream and Madonna). He began the cycle in the 1890s, and the motifs formulated at this time would occupy him for the rest of his life.
It was in Berlin, where Munch lived from 1892 to 1895, mixing with the Expressionists and enjoying solo exhibitions, that the idea for the Frieze of Life had begun to take shape. As he became increasingly well-known, he was no longer considered a primarily Norwegian or even Scandinavian artist, and by the mid-1890s had broken into the wider European art market.
‘From 1895 to 1902, the period when Vampire II was created, Munch experimented extensively with watercolour, different stones and colour combinations,’ Scott explains. ‘No two impressions are exactly the same.’ These years also saw Munch enter into a romantic relationship with a woman called Tulla Larsen; the affair ended dramatically in 1902 when, during an argument with Larsen, Munch accidentally shot himself in the hand.
Munch initially titled the subject of this print Love and Pain. Its Vampire tag was coined by Munch’s friend, the Polish critic Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who had seen an earlier version of the work at an exhibition in 1893. The title stuck, and Munch would use it on all subsequent iterations of the theme.
‘Munch clearly enjoyed the difficulties that would have been associated with the production of this print’
‘Looking at the work with these titles in mind, it becomes clear that it can be read in two very different ways,’ says Scott. ‘If you read it as Love and Pain, it is quite a tender work: the image is of a man surrendering himself to the comforting embrace of the woman, seeking solace. If you read it as Vampire, the man is being consumed by the woman.
‘But it doesn’t have to be one or the other — its meaning can change depending on the mood of the viewer,’ the specialist explains. ‘That itself is very characteristic of Munch’s work — so much is left open to interpretation.’
The creation of Vampire II was the result of an incredibly complex process. Munch used two lithographic stones; a base grey stone and a red stone, in addition to blue, green and yellow wood blocks.
‘Munch liked using woodcut because instead of a smooth finish, which is what would result from lithography, you can see the grain of the wood,’ Scott reveals. ‘This is something that you see throughout his printed work. He has no shame in leaving visible the wood’s natural grain, which adds depth to the print.’ Each element had to be registered separately, which made it particularly difficult to produce multiple impressions.
‘This was never meant for mass production,’ the specialist concludes, ‘and Munch clearly enjoyed the difficulties that would have been associated with its execution.’ One of the crowning achievements of Munch’s graphic output, Vampire II is offered in our Prints & Multiples sale in London on 28 March.