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The Bohemian as Woman

Written by: Anne Birgitte Rønning |

“The future’s premature child,” Hans Jæger had called the bohemian in the preface to his book Fra KristianiaBohemen (1885; From the Christiania Bohemia) which described the ‘bohemians’ as a small group of young intellectuals and artists out of step with a society that changed from day to day as modernisation and urbanisation advanced, but which was still marked by nineteenth-century bourgeois values and moral standards. The Norwegian bohemian authors aspired to a sense of life and art that could break open the boundaries both for oppressive bourgeois respectability and fatuous modernity. The first of the bohemians’ “Nine Commandments”, as published in their journal Impressionisten (The Impressionist) in 1889, was: “Thou shalt write thy life.”

Wegener, Gerda (1885-1940): Københavnerinden. 1908. Kvindemuseet, Århus

While the Christiania bohemians can be dated to the final years of the nineteenth century, the ‘bohemian’ as such was not directly affiliated with a milieu in place and time. As Danish Agnes Henningsen later wrote, the bohemian was “the same in every country”, representative of an anti-bourgeois counter-culture in which fear of life, cultural fatigue, and pleasure, intoxication and vitalism went hand in hand.

For Hans Jæger, the bohemian milieu consisted of “the men with the big demands, demands of the future, which can only be satisfied under freer, richer, and nobler societal forms”, and male artists comprised the core of the new artists’ circles in Scandinavia and throughout Europe. The bohemian women also had great “demands of the future”, however. For them, freedom and liberation were not synonymous with the feminists’ demand for the right to vote, but a question of self-realisation in love and art. If the male figure-heads of the bohemian milieu caused scandal, the women did too – and to no less a degree. As bohemians they offended against every norm of what constituted a decent life for a woman as wife, as mother, as the heart and mind of the home. At the same time, it was for this femininity that they were fetishised in the bohemian milieu.

Dagny Juel Przybyszewska (1867-1901) was one of the few women in the circle who frequented the bar Zum Schwarzen Ferkel in Berlin, focal point for one of the 1890s’ many extensive Nordic artists’ colonies. This was a forum for Scandinavian writers such as Norwegian Gunnar Heiberg, Danish Holger Drachmann, Swedish Ola Hansson and Finnish Karl August Tavastjerna; here, you could bump into the Norwegian painters Edvard Munch, Christian Krohg, and his wife Oda Krohg, who also aspired to recognition as a serious artists.

August Strindberg was one of the central figures in the circle around Zum Schwarzen Ferkel, a bar in Berlin. Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, with her free and sexual nature, was too much for him. After his initial fascination, he started to victimise her with defamation in letters and fiction:

“If I wanted, I’d have the police pick her up for prostitution one dark evening when she was roaming the streets. Good old revenge!” he writes to his friend Bengt Lidforss.

With her tumultuous life and her tragic death, Dagny Juel Przybyszewska became a myth, and the myth about the woman who provokes and inspires male artists has overshadowed her own writing – writing that addressed female desire, and which displays an ambivalent attitude to life as bohemian woman.

“She was Norwegian, very slim, with the figure of a fourteenth-century Madonna and a laugh that drove men wild. She was called Ducha and drank absinthe without getting drunk […] She had a provocative word for every man, drew him up to her, and then pushed him away again.”

“Ducha” – the Norwegian writer Dagny Juel Przybyszewska (1867-1901) – as described by her contemporary, the German writer and art critic Julius Meier Graefe.

In one of her surviving poems, this ambivalence comes across through contrasting images in which the first-person narrator’s ‘healthy’ (female) nature is poisoned while, at the same time, the poison is a power that gives her visions and air under her wings:

And the energy I drank of your waters
Turned to poison in my healthy veins,
While I waited, sitting on the rune stone.

And the poison that permeated my brain
Gave me power to decipher the stone’s runes,
While the moon faded behind the forest.

And when the sun rose radiantly in the east
I saw the eagle’s young, strong wings
Spread like flames over the firmament.

Besides the surviving poems, all that Dagny Juel Przybyszewska left behind are four plays and five short prose pieces. These plays and prose works are all typical of their times; they break with most of the conventions of realism, and the language is lyrically vivid and incantatory. Dagny Juel Przybyszewska’s female characters are swayed by their urges and their passions, and we always find prominent issues of anxiety and guilt linked to the love between man and woman.

All the plays involve the eternal triangle – two women fight over the same man, or one woman is spilt between her attraction to two men, each of whom makes his own demands of her. In Synden and Ravnegård the erotic game ends in death; and it is the characters who loved most quietly who are sacrificed: the gentle sister in Ravnegård and the husband in Synden. However, those who are victorious, who are driven by the demonic and the impassioned, end up as tragic losers. Commotion and desire are not made to be gratified, and the costs of getting rid of the female rival is depicted in all its unbearable anxiety and sense of guilt in the one-acter Når solen går ned.

Of Dagny Juel Przybyszewska’s writings, only the play Den sterkere (The Stronger) and four prose texts were published (in, respectively, 1896 and 1900) during her lifetime. She wrote in Norwegian, but lived, among other places, in Poland. Her plays Synden (Sin) and Når solen går ned (When the Sun Sets) were translated into Polish and published in Prague in 1899, Ravnegård was also translated into Polish and produced in Kraków in 1902. The original manuscripts, in Norwegian, were not ‘discovered’ until the 1970s, and they were published in 1978 under the title Synden og to andre skuespill (Sin and Two Other Plays).

Den sterkere, (1896; The Stronger) is interesting because it deals with the love conflict in a new way, and it can be seen as a ‘response’ to Ibsen’s portrayal of the enigmatic and desirous woman in Fruen fra Havet (1888; Eng. tr. The Lady from the Sea). The motif is the same: a man from the past turns up and lays claim to a woman who, since they last met, has been living in a well-established marriage. But Dagny Juel Przybyszewska’s woman, Siri, will stake everything on her marriage, for her the past is behind her, and it is her husband she loves. That she nonetheless, unlike Ibsen’s Ellida, elects to go off with the man from the past, is because her husband, Knut, never shows her any trust and cannot reconcile himself to the knowledge that his wife has had lovers before him.

The prose work “Sing mir das Lied vom Leben und vom Tode” (Sing Me the Song of Life and Death), published in Norwegian in the journal Samtiden in 1900, depicts a woman who is crushed by a man’s love. Dagny Juel Przybyszewska upturns men’s picture of woman’s libido as life- and death-bringing – here it is the husband’s love that is described in stifling flower-imagery:

“Ah, the flowers in his love garden had grown too luxuriantly around her, the scent had robbed her of her breath, the flower runners had wound around her until she had felt bound hand and foot. His eyes always held a thousand questions: Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me so much […] She had felt like a debtor who cannot repay the money owing.”

Dagny Juel, the daughter of a doctor, came from a little town in eastern Norway. Piano studies took her to Christiania and on to Berlin. In 1893 she married the Polish poet Stanislaw Przybyszewski, and together they lived a rootless life in the cities of Europe. After some tempestuous years, Przybyszewski left Dagny, and on 5 June 1901 she was shot dead by a young admirer in Tiflis [present-day Tbilisi] in the Caucasus. By this time her reputation had been completely compromised in her native country. Edvard Munch, however, did not share this view and, in an interview for the newspaper Kristiania Dagsavis, he accorded her the status of intellectual and cultivated woman, serious about her writing. He was backed up in this evaluation by an unexpected party: feminist Gina Krog, who had otherwise always taken sharp issue with the bohemian milieu.

Anne Birgitte Rønning

Between God and Man

Krohg, Christian (1852-1925): Kunstnerens hustru. 1888. Oil on canvas. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

While the plots in Dagny Juel Przybyszewska’s text are stylised, not bound to a specific milieu, her fellow-writer Anna Munch (1856-1932) gives a more direct description of the cultural circles. She is, moreover, the first Norwegian writer to choose the female artist as the central character in her books.

Anna Munch, née Dahl, came from an upper-class Christiania family and had studied for her realskoleeksamen (lower secondary school leaving examination) at Hartvig Nissen’s well-known school in the town. Having been divorced from her first husband, who would not accept her writing activities, she married a considerably younger fellow-writer, Sigurd Mathiesen (1871-1958). She travelled a great deal and spent periods living in Denmark; she was most at home in the artistic community.

Anna Munch focused more on the pleasures of bohemian life – art, travel, and freedom of action – than on the vices and shady sides investigated by her male colleagues. Her heroines are writers, musicians, singers, or dancers. They spend their time in cafés and bars, pose as artists’ models, go to artists’ carnivals, discuss, dance, and drink wine. But her picture of bohemian life also has its conflicts. Anna Munch’s universe holds a constantly unsatisfied spiritual desire, desire for mutual understanding with the other, for atonement, and for a religious transfiguration. In all of Anna Munch’s books there are dangerous unconscious forces in the women. The writer endeavours to record this danger and monitor its behaviour – she does not try to explain it.

Sigrid Strøm, in the novel To Mennesker. Gåten Knut Hamsun (1897; Two People. The Enigma Knut Hamsun), falls heavily for a writer friend, but she is rejected and sinks into depression. In an artists’ boarding house, where she lives among friends, she regains her equanimity and realises that her feelings are not reciprocated. Meanwhile, a sense of guilt makes her renounce this environment because he lives there too. During a pilgrimage back to give him a final greeting, she has an accident and dies. Punishment awaits when a woman takes the initiative in relation to a man. Sigrid’s abilities as a writer had been led astray. Fixated on explaining her feelings, she had bombarded her artist friend with letters. After each letter she experienced a nightmarish sensation of not being understood and so she would write again, and eventually ended up in a morbid ongoing cycle.

Anna Munch’s love for Knut Hamsun ran a problematic course, not very different from that outlined in To mennesker. Robert Ferguson’s Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (1987) gives an unequivocally negative picture of Anna Munch. Peter Egge (1869-1959), who knew Anna Munch personally, describes her thus:

“She was dark, reserved, difficult to become acquainted with. A good person who had drifted away from the bourgeois society into which she had been born. An innocent bohemian.”

Minner fra tiden omkring århundreskiftet (1950; Reminiscences from around the Turn of the Century)

In the novel Verdens Herrer (1903; Princes of the World), too, the heroine’s writing process is important, but this time it is therapeutic. During a crisis in an affair of the heart, Elisabeth, while waiting for a sign of life from her artist friend, writes out their story, supplementing the account with excerpts from her diary. Of particular interest is her relationship to the body and to sexuality, which the author describes frankly and openly. Elisabeth loves everything of a physical nature. Learning to swim had been a defining moment with a lovely experience of self-presence. When, as an adult, she embarks upon a sexual relationship, however, the feeling of freedom and independence is missing. Her reflections on this “experiment”, as she calls it, were new fare in her day.

“It was the same […] I was in the water learning to swim again, but actually with less zeal than when I had cultivated the old art form as a child […] there is not actually anything profound in or much thought needed to write books on purely physical actions.”

In her most significant book, the novel Glæde, (1904; Joy), Anna Munch again projects the lost but utopian universe of childhood. Glæde has a more intense sentiment of life, a firmer composition, and a more specific critique of civilisation than Anna Munch’s other works. The book is structured like a Bildungsroman; little Ester grows up, goes through various ordeals and suffering, and finally dies reconciled. In its depiction of Ester, the book gives an engaging and sensitive portrait of childhood. Danish literary scholars have pointed out the similarities with works by Karin Michaëlis. Ester’s creativity and joie de vivre is presented as a utopian vision of authentic life.

The loving, harmonious family at the end of Anna Munch’s novel Glæde (1904; Joy) can be seen as a vision of the future, as a regressive dream, or as a tribute to a religious aesthetic of atonement.

Ester points towards the androgynous female type introduced in Anna Munch’s last work, Menneskenes Barn (1916; Child of Humankind). The author here presents “the third sex” or “human-women” of the future. In this vision of a new life for women, greatest import is given to companionship with men and “growth of the inner life”: that is, a friendship alliance without sexuality, and with a religious, freedom-oriented dimension. Unlike her earlier books, however, understanding and closeness between sisters is here also ascribed great importance.

Astrid Lorenz

Translated by Gaye Kynoch