Munch's fraught relationships with women were a recurring theme in his art. In 1898, the year The Heart was made, Munch had begun a passionate liason with Mathilda (Tulla) Larsen, the daughter of a wealthy Christiana wine merchant. Their affair was often tempestuous, with tensions arising from Tulla's desire to marry Munch, which he resisted. 'I have always put my art above everything else. Most often I feel a woman would block my way. I decided at an early age to remain unmarried. Because of the inherited tendencies to illness, both from my father and from my mother, I always felt it would be a crime to marry.' The relationship ended with an angry encounter in Asgardstrand in which a revolver shot severed the top two upper joints of the third finger on Munch's left hand.
The Heart calls to mind the religious iconography of the Sacred Heart, the apotheosis of self-sacrificial love, but is viscerally different. Is the woman who cradles the bloody organ intent on kissing or devouring it? Is her head bowed in reverence, or stooped in preparation for a ghastly feast? The image of Woman as predatory and desire as perilous is powerfully expressed in other iconic prints by Munch, such as The Vampire (1895). The meaning of The Heart is perhaps more ambiguous. It does, however, eloquently distil the artist's deeply ambivalent experience of love, one in which fear and passion are not mutually exclusive.
Executed as a woodcut, a medium which Munch experimented with extensively, The Heart illustrates his innovative method of cutting the carved block into its component pieces with a jigsaw. These were then inked separately with different colours, fitted back together again like a puzzle and printed with one pass through the press.