British Museum Reunites Portrait That Edvard Munch Sawed in Half to Avenge His Fiancée
The Norwegian painter split the canvas in two following a violent breakup with partner Tulla Larsen
The end of Edvard Munch and Tulla Larsen’s relationship was more explosive than most breakups. Although the exact details of the event remain unclear, its aftermath is well-recorded: Munch suffered a gunshot wound that claimed part of the middle finger on his left hand, and Larsen, quickly rebounding from the broken engagement, married Norwegian painter Arne Kavli. Some time later, “The Scream” artist took a saw to a self-portrait depicting him and his former fiancée, splitting the canvas in two as a physical manifestation of the relationship’s dissolution.
Now, Vanessa Thorpe reports for the Guardian, an upcoming exhibition at the British Museum is set to reunite the splintered halves of this painting, displaying them side-by-side for the first time in more than a century.
The show, fittingly titled "Edvard Munch: Love and Angst," is on view at the London institution through July 21. According to the Art Newspaper’s Aimee Dawson, it draws on some 80 works—mainly prints—to explore the Norwegian artist’s conception of the “Frieze of Life,” a cyclical pattern of human experience defined by love, anxiety and death.
“Self-Portrait with Tulla Larsen” certainly reflects its creator’s dramatic preoccupations. As exhibition curator Giulia Bartram tells Thorpe, “[Munch] did this extraordinary portrait at the height of their relationship.”
Bartram continues, “He looks red-faced and she looks pretty fed up.”
Writing for Smithsonian magazine in 2006, Arthur Lubow notes that Munch met Larsen, then the 29-year-old daughter of a wealthy local wine merchant, in 1898. Enraptured by the older artist, who by his own account was reluctant to yield to her advances, she reportedly pursued him across Europe for the next year. Although Larsen eventually convinced Munch to grudgingly propose, he then fled from her once again, settling down in Berlin and expanding his cycle of “Frieze of Life” paintings.
In the summer of 1902, friends convinced the artist to visit his fiancée, who was threatening suicide and taking copious doses of morphine. Accounts of the meeting vary: A post published on the Museyon Guides’ blog suggests Larsen pulled out a gun and pointed it at her own head, sparking a struggle that ended in the weapon accidentally discharging, while the Evening Standard’s Matthew Collings posits that a young, drunken Munch drew his gun during the heated encounter, waved it around and unintentionally blasted off a chunk of his middle finger.
Munch’s own account aligns more closely with the latter theory, as he later said the shooting only occurred because of his overdrinking. Still, the Guardian’s Thorpe points out, the artist was known to dramatize the facts of his life, leaving the full truth of the incident unknown.
As Claire Armitstead writes in a separate Guardian article, an X-ray cataloguing the extent of the hand injury is one of the Munch Museum in Oslo's “more macabre possessions.” Undoubtedly “painful and unpleasant,” Robert Hughes wrote for the Guardian in 2005, the wound was nevertheless “about as life-threatening as an ingrown fingernail, especially since his painting hand was unhurt.”
The damage inflicted by the 1902 argument was likely more psychological than physical, Smithsonian’s Lubow explains. Reflecting on the injury in later writings, Munch revealed a life-long tendency toward melodrama, complaining in the third person that “everybody stared at him, at his deformed hand. He noticed that those he shared a table with were disgusted by the sight of his monstrosity.”
Speaking with the Guardian’s Thorpe, curator Giulia Bartram notes that Larsen was one of multiple women with whom Munch had highly volatile relationships. These unhealthy dynamics are evident across his oeuvre—consider “The Death of Marat,” a 1907 work that casts Larsen as assassin Charlotte Corday and the artist as her victim, and “The Dance of Life,” an 1899 canvas featuring Larsen as an alternately innocent, sensual and anguished figure—and, in Bartram’s opinion, speak to the unheralded influence of Munch’s female muses.
“He almost physically feared them,” Bartram concludes. “He was nervous about commitment to the point of neurosis. And perhaps his most torturous relationship was with Larsen.”
"Edvard Munch: Love and Angst" is on view at the British Museum in London through July 21.