The Scarlet-Clad Woman: Munch's Influence in A Fringe of Leaves

By Hewitt, Helen Verity | Australian Literary Studies, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Scarlet-Clad Woman: Munch's Influence in A Fringe of Leaves

Hewitt, Helen Verity, Australian Literary Studies

Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves (1976) is based on the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle north of Fraser Island in 1836, the subsequent capture of Eliza Fraser by an Aboriginal tribe, and her eventual return to European settlement assisted by an escaped convict. White borrows a surprising amount of detail from the historical accounts of these events (see Davidson, Schaffer, Stow and Ward). Likewise, he borrows a great deal from painting. He had first heard the story from Sidney Nolan in 1958, who painted three series of paintings on the subject (1948-9, 1956-7, 1964). During the early 60s an opera was mooted, libretto by White, sets by Nolan, composer Benjamin Britten; nothing came of it but in 1963 White wrote: `One can no longer imagine Mrs Fraser apart from the Nolan paintings' (Marr 413). The second half of A Fringe of Leaves is profoundly influenced by these paintings, as has been frequently remarked. However, I would argue that the influence of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, particularly his Woman in Three Stages, is equally important in this novel.

In 1975 White saw Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, a visiting exhibition from New York's Museum of Modern Art. He was working on the second draft of A Fringe of Leaves at the time. He wrote to the Melbourne artist Erica McGilchrist in May 1975:

   I was interested to see that Munch [The Voice]; it reminded me of Mrs
   Volkov in The Vivisector and an experience she had in her youth. Since the
   exhibition I've been looking at a book on Munch and feel I am closer to him
   than any other painter. [my italics](1)

Munch's vision of human life oppressed and shaped by death, sickness, infection, spiritual anxiety, social strictures, smothered sexual passion and constant unresolved tension between men and women, has its counterpart in A Fringe of Leaves. Like White, Munch was a Romantic drawn to exploration of profound emotional experience. The thread of Northern Romanticism which runs through most of White's work is picked up strongly in this novel.

There was mutual influence between Munch and Ibsen. Manly Johnson discusses Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken as an important source for A Fringe of Leaves; Munch believed that his painting Woman in Three Stages (1895) had provided the inspiration for Ibsen's play:

   It was in 1895. -- I had an exhibition at Blomqvist's.-- The pictures
   caused a tremendous uproar. -- People wanted to boycott the gallery -- call
   the police. -- One day I met Ibsen there.... He showed particular interest
   in `Woman in Three Stages'. I had to explain the picture to him. Here is
   the dreaming woman -- there the woman hungry for life -- and the woman as a
   nun -- standing pale-faced behind the trees.... A few years later Ibsen
   wrote When We Dead Awaken.... These three female figures appear in many
   places in Ibsen's drama -- as in my picture. (Qtd. in Messer 86)

As White was always alert to painting as a stimulus in his own work, and was also fascinated by theatre, he would no doubt have traced with great interest the lines of influence between Munch's painting and Ibsen's play, both of which contribute to A Fringe of Leaves. (The above quote is reproduced in most studies of Munch and White would almost certainly have seen it.)

Munch's various versions of Woman in Three Stages provided White with a template for Ellen Roxburgh. As a girl and young married woman she is like the long-haired girl in white, the figure Munch described as `walking out towards the sea -- towards infinity -- that is the woman of yearning' (Eggum 137-38). Ellen is enclosed in romantic dreams of Tintagel, looking out towards the sea. In her awakened maturity she is like the middle figure in Woman in Three Stages, `hungry for life'. Munch portrays this figure either naked or clothed in scarlet. He was at once fascinated and frightened by the power of the `scarlet woman'. Ellen is linked with her through various plays on `garnet'.

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