If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a human, or at very least a super well-coded bot, which means you’ve encountered Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's ultra-iconic 1893 masterpiece The Scream once or fifteen thousand times throughout your life. Munch is known today as much for his signature existential style as he is for his storied battle with mental illness, one that forced him in and out of sanitariums over the course of his long life. The man was complicated in every conceivable sense; he lost most of his family to tuberculosis, pneumonia, or institutionalization by the time he was out of his teens, he never married, although his few affairs were reliably torrid in nature, and his penchant for liquor became increasingly hard to sustain as his career advanced, leading to a litany of health problems and nervous breakdowns. A lonely, brackish, and mercurial person, Munch made paintings that reflected a wanton inner life, one rife with obsessive anxieties about art, women, and his own creative legacy.
Plagued by paranoia, grief, and addiction, Munch never quite found his stride again after an electro-convulsive hospital stay in 1909, but he remained fairly prolific until his death at Ekely, Norway in 1944, at which point he was forcibly given a Nazi funeral, despite the fact that Hitler forcibly removed all 82 of Munch’s pieces from German museums before the breakout of WWII. Most importantly, the Nazis weren’t able to seize all of Munch’s vast collection before it was bequeathed to the city of Oslo, where the majority of his work still resides today. Contemporary estimation of Munch often reduces him to a one-hit-wonder, a dilution that undercuts the stunning breadth and un-matched weirdness of his oeuvre. In particular, his depictions of women deserve a second look, along with a deep, troubled pause.
The most thrilling part of Munch’s narrative has to be the Berlin years of his late twenties and early thirties; the 1890s bore witness to his greatest masterpieces and wildest adventures, largely due to his participation in a collective known as The Black Piglet Group, a gang of ex-pats so named for their patronage of wine bar Zum schwarzen Ferkel (The Black Piglet). Suffice to say, it went down at The Black Piglet—drugs, wife-swapping, casual Satanism, murder, and, you know... artistic interchange? Probably? Definitely booze. Certainly booze.
Sounds fun, right?
Here are some good things to know about The Black Piglet Group:
The Key Players
"Dive at Veterland", 1882-83, via Munch Museum, Oslo
The most illustrious Black Piglet members were August Strindberg, a Swedish playwright and novelist, Holger Drachmann, a Danish dramatist and painter, Munch, naturally, and Polish Symbolist writer Stanislaw Przybyszewski, whose wife, Dagny Juel, existed in the eye of a multivalent sexual maelstrom we’ll discuss in depth a little later on. Others included Richard Dehmel, the German poet, Christian and Oda Krohg, Norwegian painters, Gutav Vigeland, the Norwegian sculptor, Ola Hansson, the Swedish poet, and Alfred Wysocki, a Polish diplomat. Munch was and remains the most internationally famous member of The Black Piglet Group, but not necessarily the most infamous. Pryzybyszewski had children by at least three different women and was briefly jailed for murdering the mother of his first two kids, for instance, Drachmann threatened to kill Strindberg at least three times on record, Dehmel once smashed 900 liquor bottles en route to an impromptu opium-induced poetry recital, and Strindberg was a dedicated Occultist whose anti-establishment, egalitarian writings on women’s social roles in Sweden contradicted his belief that women’s bodies were peculiarly apt vessels for the Devil, a working blueprint for many of Munch’s most memorable works.
The Artistic Milieu
Max Marschalks and Munch's exhibition in the Equitable Palast in Berlin, 1892, via DailyArt Magazine
Speaking of memorable works, it’s important to note the context of Munch’s arrival to the German art world. After exhibiting in Berlin at the invitation of fellow Norwegian artist Eilert Adelsteen Normann, Munch so scandalized the capital that a prominent newspaper accused him of “offend[ing] against every rule of painting; his pictures were raw, brutal, vile — they had nothing to do with art!”, purposefully citing his name as “E. Blunch” out of spite. A vote of 120 to 105 at the Berlin artist’s association motioned to close Munch's show after just two days, a public fiasco that didn’t much faze the iconoclastic artist. Instead, he saw it as a publicity opportunity, hiring rooms in the fashionable Equitable Palast to curate his own exhibitions for friends and enemies alike. His rivalry with Strindberg really took off during this period; Munch became something of a tourist attraction at The Black Pig, and his unflattering portraits of Strindberg helped contribute considerably to their growing animosity. Eventually, an argument between Drachmann and Munch led Strindberg to peace out from the group for a period of time, at which point he returned with a new wife, a new mistress, and an even worse attitude. The Black Piglet Group were both externally and self-defined as bohemians, specifically Christiana (now known as Oslo) Bohemians, so a certain amount of self-romanticization was par for the course. This has led to confusion about what exactly was false and true about the collective; its two primary narrators, Strindberg and Pryzybyszewski, were both notorious for their ability to spin a yarn, especially if it deflected blame.
The Messy Sex Stuff
"The Vampire", 1892, via The Independent
As such, it’s a little hard to keep track of exactly who was banging whom in The Black Piglet Group, thanks in no small part to the revisionist history many of its members championed—they were all writing, painting, and sculpting really mean stuff about each other throughout the entire existence of the collective. (Also, where un-checked sexism and fragile masculinity thrive, rumors tend to fly.) It’s useful, then, to start at the source of so much rivalry, myth, and heartache, the strikingly beautiful Dagny Juel Przybyszewski, who was 25 at the time of her introduction to the bunch through her husband, Stanislaw. In Scandinavia, the radical social notion of “free love” had been en vogue with upper echelon intelligentsia since the 1880s, and Norwegian Black Piglet members like Hans Jaeger and the Krohgs saw “free love” as an opportunity to practice a proto-feminist version of swinging, all the while advocating for its progressive politic in the service of bohemia’s larger conceptual goals. (Oda Krohg boasted freely about her conquests, to the point where she was expelled for a time from the group for her indiscretions). Not so in Poland. Dagny’s husband, chronically philandering Stanislaw, otherwise known as Stach, saw things a little differently.
In an 1897 article about Edvard Munch's paintings, he opined;
“Hans Jaeger’s famous novel... openly proclaimed “free love,” and that “free” love was elevated to a kind of sacred status... But the breakdown soon followed. The Bohemia’s moral about women’s sexual equality and the sacredness of "free love" drove some people to suicide, some women from the Bohemia became prostitutes... Thus the Bohemia fell apart. The women were corrupted under the influence of the moral of “free love,” and then men fell away in drink or suicide.”
Yikes. Stach evidently didn't feel the same about himself, and was very comfortable openly sleeping with a wide variety of different women, going so far as to write a Satanist manifesto parodying the Gospel according to St. John, entitled "In the beginning there was sex." (Double standards, much?)
According to Strindberg, Dagny and he had a three-week relationship on the heels of Strindberg’s undercover marriage to Austrian writer and translator Frida Uhl, but it’s most probable that Dagny actually rejected his proposal of marriage, prompting him to respond with a years-long smear campaign to paint her as a ‘loose woman.’
Art historians have oft-positioned Dagny at Munch’s muse, citing her rogue slut energy as the inspiration for his quakingly intimidated paintings of raven-haired women, but it’s likely that Munch’s interest in her was also unrequited, and Stach’s anger at Dagny’s constant stream of attention, coupled with Strindberg’s hurt feelings, led both writers to falsely cast her as a predatory, succubistic destroyer of men’s minds and bodies in their later works on the machinations of The Black Piglet Group. During the group’s most formative years, though, Dagny's sexual charisma was considered canonical, a half-truth that led to one of Munch’s most damning paintings, Jealousy, which portrays an Eve-like archetype openly mocking a dejected Stach. Most male Black Piglet members went so far as to call her Aspasia, a reference to Pericles’s lover, also an alleged brothel madam back in ancient Athens. Dagny, a burgeoning pianist and novelist, met a deeply unfair end; after being abandoned by Stach for his friend Jan Kasprowiscz’s wife, she was murdered by an old flame in a hotel room in Tbilisi. Dagny had at least three relationships with men in her husband’s circle prior to her death, so it’s generally accepted that he assisted in orchestrating the murder.
High drama, to say the least.
Aside from Dagny, art historical consensus holds that a certain amount of wife-swapping was, in fact, taking place, but most of the male Black Piglet members weren't overly keen on discussing it, lest their collective manhood be compromised. There was absolutely a syphillus problem amidst Black Piglet members, which... you can draw your own conclusions there, this is an art magazine.
Munch’s Inability To Get His Mojo Working and Final Thoughts
"Madonna", 1895 via Ohara Museum of Art
Munch never seemed to kick up his heels and get in on the action with the same relish, feigned or genuine, as his contemporaries. A brief, ill-fated affair with a married woman at the tender age of 22 sent him into a years-long spiral that further fed his overall misapprehension of the opposite sex, and evidence of his female estimation feels fraught at best and malevolently misognyistic at worst. His friend Stach’s charming castigation of women as “vampires” solely born to drive men to their deaths came up quite a bit in Munch’s work, and the leitmotif of the flowing-haired, monolithic deity, surrounded in sperm, lit from behind, and hovering in formidable, harrowing redress to the viewer speaks volumes to the un-checked sexual anxiety that plagued The Black Piglet Group. Munch seemed to prefer the sidelines, where he could drunkenly obsess over Dagny Juel and her dating roster in gritty, atmospheric oil. Because Strindberg's novel The Cloister, much of which was falsified, remains the last contemporaneous account of what might have happened to The Black Piglet Group outside of their correspondence with each other, (much of which was also falsified—that's another story), we don't know exactly how their shenanigans ended; Munch moved to Paris in 1896 and back to Christiana in 1897, having secured better financial standing for himself, but eventually high-tailed it back to Berlin in 1900 to escape another "free love" proponent, rich girl about Oslo Tulla Larsen, with whom he had accidentally entered a short but typically stressful tryst. It seems that the collective died with Dagny's untimely passing, an appropriately poetic point of punctuation for the little world so dedicated to betraying its point of orbit.