'He sat with his arm around her body. Her head was so near to him. It seemed so remarkable to have her eyes, her mouth, her breasts so near to him.
And he laid his head between her breasts. He felt her blood stream through her veins. He listened to the beat of her heart. He buried his face in her lap. She lowered her head down on him and he felt two warm, burning lips on his neck. A shudder passed through his body, a shudder of voluptuousness. And he pressed her compulsively to him.'
Edvard Munch, MS, MM T 2771, cited in Reinhold Heller, Munch: His Life and Work, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984, p.129
It was Munch’s perceptive critic and friend Stanislaw Przybyszewski who first coined the title Vampire, having seen the work exhibited in 1893. Munch himself had initially called the work Love and Pain. The title significantly changes the way in which the viewer interacts with and reads the image. Pryzbysewski’s title Vampire invokes a sense of horror and high drama with the viewer; with his head lowered into her lap, the man has succumbed to the charms of the red-haired temptress, her arms envelop his shoulders tightly, her lips pause, her eyes are closed, as she is seemingly about to bite his neck - he is unescapably hers. Seen as a work called Love and Pain, the scene takes on a far more tender and calm mood, that of a tormented man surrendering himself to the comforting embrace of a lover. Instead of biting him, she is tenderly kissing him and providing solace. Depending on the context or the mood of the viewer, this work can either be seen as a macabre vision of lust and seduction or a sensitive, albeit agonised, interpretation of love.
Vampire, as it has now come to be known, is one of the most important motifs in the artist's entire oeuvre. First executed in oil, he returned to the subject again and again and created a total of ten different versions of it, in painting as well as in the print medium. The subject was part of Munch's so-called Frieze of Life, a series of archetypal paintings exploring the themes of angst, love, sex and death, including The Scream and Madonna. Munch began working on the cycle in the 1890s, but the motifs formulated then occupied him for his entire life.
Whilst the earliest printed versions of Vampire, dating from 1895, were executed in black and white, it seems clear that Munch saw this ultimately as a work in colours. He spent seven years developing his ideas, applying gouache and watercolour to a range of monochrome impressions until, in 1902, he concluded his investigations with a period of intense experimentation, using both woodblocks and lithographic stones. To create the present version, Munch ran the sawn woodblock through the press to print the green background, dark blue encapsulating aura, and ochre-coloured flesh. The horizontal wood grain of the rough wooden plank he used is strongly visible, adding texture to the image. Next, Munch added a lithographic stone to colour the fiery orange hair strands that seem to consume the man. Finally, he printed the keystone with the figures in grey to complete the composition. The result is a haunting and powerful image, and one of the technically most innovative and demanding prints in the artist's oeuvre. Elizabeth Prelinger summarises the experimentation and complexity with which the artist approached this work and why it can be considered one of the crowning masterpieces of his graphic output:
'...the artist ceaselessly experimented with the order in which he printed the stones and the block sections. The result was a constantly shifting image, one in which the artist manipulated the different areas in order to alter the appearance and meaning of the scene.... Though each impression stands on its own, representing a different facet of Symbolist meaning, ideally one would view them all together, not unlike Claude Monet's series paintings of haystacks or the façade of Rouen Cathedral. The Vampyre images exhibit the extraordinary scope of Munch's technical creativity and remain endlessly suggestive.'
Elizabeth Prelinger and Michael Parke-Taylor, The Symbolist Prints of Edvard Munch, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1996, p.111.