In all iterations of Edvard Munch’s subject “Separation,” a woman’s hair whips behind her in the cutting Norweigan wind, varyingly entwined with her lover’s furrowed features, or just touching him light as fingertips. Either way, the pair’s magnetic connection is palpable – as is the stark atmosphere of love denied. Who is behind this woman figured in Edvard Munch’s early, aching pictures?
Her name was Millie Thaulow. Millie was the young wife of a doctor – a relative of Munch’s, who was also related to the boisterous circle of artist friends, the Kristiania Bohème, with which Munch was involved. Among the group’s many rebellious notions, they believed in liberation from conservative lifestyle constraints. It will come as no surprise, then, that Millie’s marriage only fanned the flame of Munch’s desire: “So he thought,” he wrote in his diary, “he could find a woman, that could mean something to him – outside the bonds of marriage. The Era of the Bohème came with its doctrine of free love.”*
Strandbredd i Åsgårdstrand, 1895, oil on cardboard, 22.6 x 32.9 inches © Munch-museet
As Munch remembers in his pictures and diaries, the couple met under the cover of the forest, they walked the blustery coastline of Åsgårdstrand in the solicitude of twilight. The couple seem to be held together by the same force that keeps them from meeting. The chilly Norweigan landscape was a place where love could spark, bright as a slash of color on the page, but could not endure. And when Munch was awarded funding to continue his artistic studies in Paris, he left with the embers of their affair still smoldering – perhaps, try as he might, never extinguished. He wrote in his diary: “What a deep mark she had scratched in my heart – that no other picture can crowd it completely out –”**
*Epstein, Sarah G. and Oberlin College. The Prints of Edvard Munch: Mirror of his Life. Hennage Creative Printers, Alexandria, Viriginia. 1983. (pp. 38)
**Munch, E. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We are Flames Which Pour out of the Earth. (J. G. Holland, Ed. 2005). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.