Edvard Munch’s painting features several couples dancing in the glow of the summer night. The main element of the composition is the couple in the middle, where a woman in a bright red dress dances closely with her partner; with her loose hair entwining him, they seem to be as one. The couple is flanked by two women: a young, lively woman in a white dress and a pale woman with sunken cheeks dressed in black. It is as though a story is being told about the different phases of the woman’s life. Munch has set the scene on a beach that includes scenery from the village of Åsgårdstrand. In fact, Åsgårdstrand’s curving shoreline and distinctive landscape served as the backdrop for many of the pictures associated with Munch’s long-running Frieze of Life project.
In 1898 Munch had been sent the Danish playwright Helge Rode’s latest play Dansen gaar (The Dance Goes On), which may well have inspired or refined Munch’s conception of the painting. In the play, the artist Aage Vollmer says,
“The dance of life – my picture shall be called The Dance of Life! There will be a couple dancing, in flowing garments.… He holds her tightly. He is deeply serious and happy.… He will hold her so tight that she halfway merges with him.… He fills her with strength.”
Munch kept Rode’s play in his library, but it was probably not his only inspiration for this painting, and the scene most likely also reflects his own personal experiences. Dance of Life would become one of the key works in the Frieze of Life.
Text: Ellen J. Lerberg
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0