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Love story in paintings: Edvard Munch and Tulla Larsen

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The relationship between Edvard Munch and Tulla Larsen lasted only four years. It was tormenting, painful and devastating for both of them. Of course, it greatly influenced Munch’s work and female images in it, as well as his attitude towards women and marriage in general. And it also significantly increased the number of days Munch spent in a mental hospital six years after his break with Tulla.

Before the storm

Considering the list of events that happened in the life of the young Edvard Munch, you might think that he was really lucky. For the first time, he traveled to several European countries and visited all the most important museums with financial support from his first teacher Frits Thaulow. After that, funded by a state grant for artists, he travelled to Europe three times in a row and joined classes held by the influential painter Léon Bonnat in Paris. Munch was only 26 when his solo exhibition was held in Christiania (now Oslo) in 1889. He wasn’t yet 30, when the National Gallery of Norway purchased its first Munch painting, Night in Nice, and several years later — Self-Portrait with Cigarette. Four writers (who were friends) wrote a book about him.

For several years, Munch spent summer time with his family in Åsgårdstrand, on the west coast of the Oslofjord, and traveled all over Europe for the rest nine months. He lived in Paris, Nice, Le Havre, Antwerp, Berlin and Copenhagen, painted portraits of famous writers, artists and composers, hanged around bohemian bars, made important acquaintances everywhere, and participated in exhibitions. What’s more, he was handsome, eloquent and charismatic.

However, when you get down to this, such external success and the avalanche of good luck seem more like the higher powers' attempt to compensate for Munch’s personal anxieties and troubles. All this triumphant professional advancement was accompanied by a succession of deaths of the artist’s loved ones, protracted illnesses, time spent at sanatoriums, sleepless nights, and endless, inexplicable anxiety that had been haunting Munch all his life and eventually turned into a mania.

Edvard Munch. Self-portrait with brushes
Edvard Munch. Tulla Larsen
  • Edvard Munch. Self-portrait. 1904
  • Edvard Munch. Tulla Larsen. 1899
Tulla Larsen was 29 when a mutual friend introduced her to the 35-year-old successful, fashionable and profitably scandalous artist Edvard Munch. And soon Tulla made one of the biggest mistakes in her life — she became desperate to marry him.

Tulla Larsen was a daughter of a wealthy wine merchant and the eleventh child in a large family. During his life, Tulla’s father earned so much that even after his death he was able to guarantee a comfortable and even quite luxurious life to his twelve children. The girl was only six when he died, so she became rich before even learning to write and read. Sure thing, she later studied English, German, math and music in a private school for girls, which was founded by the famous Norwegian folklorist, traveler and feminist Nikka Vonen, and also studied graphic art in Berlin. But after returning home to Norway, she used her knowledge the way the wealthiest women of that time did — by beautifying and diversifying noisy bohemian artistic meetings of Christiania with her educated speeches.

It will hurt

Edvard Munch was apprehensive about women (if not terrified of them). He believed that women deprived men of creative energy, sucked life out of them, just like vampires, and there was nothing more disastrous for a man than a touching love affair. You have to give him credit though: he did not even try to hide his take on the matter from Tulla Larsen, and never pretended to be a caring, tender lover (even at the height of their love affair). He gave neither promises, nor unfounded hopes. He used to give it to her straight from the shoulder: "You will continuously seek an earthly happiness with me, who as I always explained to you does not belong to this earth."

Moreover, the researchers of Munch’s epistolary heritage from the artist’s house that is now a museum suspect that he deliberately treated Tulla neglectfully, rudely, and sometimes even aggressively. Just to alienate her and demonstrate that no good could ever come from him. However, the unyielding Tulla didn’t give up. Even when Munch wrote in one of his letters that she could start making etchings. He would even buy books for her, so that she could educate her spirit which was "not developed in the least".

It’s difficult to say now what kept Tulla close to a man who took care of her spiritual growth so belligerently. It looked like she was an explosively passionate, impulsive, and perhaps even reckless and irrepressible person. Her whole four-year affair with Edvard Munch satisfied their common needs for feelings that were on the verge of unbearable, painful, and extremely dangerous to health. But, of course, these two were happy quite often. Tulla and Edvard often traveled together, drank a lot, talked, argued and quarreled. And yet, he was constantly trying to find a way out of that relationship, and she was constantly trying to keep him next to her. Therefore, he was often off for a long time on his own: participating in exhibitions, studying Raphael in Rome, living in Berlin or Paris for several months, or treating his innumerable illnesses in sanatoriums during winters.

Just a year after their meeting, Munch wrote to his beloved: "During the time we have been together — in all of the moments — when we lay close to each other — when we viewed the magnificent wonders of Florence — when we walked together along a sunlit road — when we sat together — and even in the moments that should have been the most intensely happy — even then happiness shone on me merely as through a door ajar — a door that divided my dark cell from the brightly lit ballroom of life itself." Far from the most romantic love confession, to be honest.

Despite their on-and-off and predominately brief meetings, relationships between the lovers ignited like the sky in Munch’s landscapes. Reproaches, threats, persuasion, blackmail — all this flew in thick mail envelopes from Christiania to Berlin, and from Paris to Christiania. The clouds grew heavier — the storm was coming. All the dangerously loaded guns that hung on the walls of their love nest were about to fire volleys at the same time. And the storm did come. And the guns did fire, just as expected.

Munch's finger

A tiny episode in Munch’s life, one scandalous scene of a break with a woman, has become almost legendary in all his biographies. Getting by with a not-so-wide range of facts (Munch was reticent about what really happened between them), biographers, critics and journalists from glossy magazines keep coming up with their own fight scenes and writing Hollywood-worthy scripts. Some of them, like British art critic Robert Hughes, took a different approach and labeled the artist with diagnoses while claiming that, like any neurotic, he exaggerated his own suffering, craved public attention and romanticized his own sacrifice.

Well, it’s time for the scandalous scene of the break itself. Edvard Munch' trips to Europe became more frequent and long. He and Tulla rarely met, the tone of his letters became annoyed and dissatisfied. Although it would seem that nothing could beat the recommendation to educate her spirit.

On August 23, 1902, Munch received a letter from his friend that said that Tulla tried to commit suicide. Doctors who came to help her found two empty bottles of morphine at her bedside. He came to her the following day, refused to talk about their shared future, allegedly because of her weakness and inappropriate condition for difficult conversations. Munch promised that he would go to Berlin (work, exhibitions) for a short while and on his return, give Tulla that serious conversation she insisted on having.
Edvard Munch. Eye to eye
Eye to eye
1900, 136×110 cm
Surprisingly, the trip was really fast — and in early September, he returned to Norway. Tulla came to his house. Almost nothing is known about what happened next except that while in the same room with Tulla, Munch got a gunshot wound to a finger on his left hand. It might be that he tried to commit suicide, but dared only to injure himself, or Tulla wanted to shoot him (or herself), and he tried to stop her. It’s either Tulla kicked up a fuss, or Edward failed to keep himself in check. They say, in addition to the gun and two desperate lovers, a significant role in this incident was played by a couple of bottles of brandy, almost empty at the time of the shot.

The last thing Tulla did in Munch’s life was calling a doctor for him. They never saw each other again. But both survived and lived very long lives apart.

After the shot

A year later, Tulla married the artist Arne Kavli, who was 10 years younger than her, and who painted tender, touching portraits of his wife. Seven years later they divorced, but she got married again the same year — and lived with her second husband for 10 years. That’s all we know about Tulla’s life: after the break with Munch, the secular chronicles and art historians were no longer interested in her.
Arne Kavli. Tulla Larsen (1903)
Speaking of Munch himself, it took him a long time to get over their break and, for the most part, the shooting episode.
Edvard Munch. Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen (the two halves of which reunited at the exhibition in the British Museum in 2019)
At first, the artist took a saw to a self-portrait depicting him and Tulla Larsen, splitting the canvas in two and later painted a dramatic scene of himself lying undressed and senseless on an operating table. He is surrounded by doctors while students or onlookers watch the operation through the window and the nurse approaches bearing a blood-filled bowl before her. Robert Hughes ironically stated that Munch’s injury was no more complicated than an ingrown nail, and his painting On the Operating Table is a ridiculous exaggeration and the worst example of self-pity, which looks similar to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Of course, the art critic was being disingenuous in his desire to be original: let’s not forget that Munch was the first expressionist artist and it was important for him to depict his own experiences, rather than the essence of the events. And that time the bloody story with a finger overlapped with the dull memories of his childhood and adolescence, full of diseases, deaths and grief of his loved ones. This feeling of frailty and doomness never left the artist.
Even few years later, Munch continued depicting Tulla as a murderess. Her lineaments can be found in his image of Charlotte Corday who assassinated French revolutionary leader Marat. The woman’s red hair is ominously flying, while her face is unreadable and deadly insensitive. Sure thing, he depicted himself as the dead Marat. What is more, he painted two versions of this scene. Needless to say, there’s lots of blood everywhere. Tulla had long been enjoying family happiness, the finger had healed a long time ago (only became shorter), and it was his left hand, not the dominant one — just making it slightly difficult to hold the palette. But Munch’s anxiety, frustration, and fear grew every year. It didn’t become easier.
At the same time, the list of the artist’s professional achievements became bigger: 22 works from Frieze of Life series were displayed at Berlin Secession, his exhibitions were held in Vienna, Prague and Paris, he signed numerous contracts with publishers of graphic albums and art dealers from different European countries. Finally, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav — a special Norwegian order intended for those recipients deemed exceptionally worthy. It was in the same triumphal year when Munch experienced a mental breakdown and spent the following eight months receiving therapy in a private mental health clinic.

A ridiculous injury, no more complicated than an ingrown nail, appeared to be much more complicated. Liters of lost blood, which he so persistently painted for several years after his break with Tulla, turned out to be a metaphor of the vitality which he was losing bit by bit, and the peace of mind that slowly left him.
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