Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Scream Defended

There are four versions of "The Scream" by Edvard Munch as well as a lithograph.  Two versions were painted and two were done in pastel all between the years of 1893 to 1910.  Two of the paintings and one pastel drawing are owned by Norwegian museums.

Recently the only version in private hands came up for auction at Sotheby's.  There are several detail that make this version very appealing to collectors.  According to Sotheby's it is the most colorful of all created.  And as importantly, it is the only version that is preserved in its original frame.  This frame, designed by Munch, has on it a poem he wrote about the experience which gave him the idea for the image.

"I was walking along a path with two friends - the sun was setting - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.
"My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

This version of "The Scream" sold for 119.9 million dollars, and if prices are adjusted for inflation, it makes it the eighth most expensive work of art ever sold.

There is no doubt in my mind that this work of art is an expression of inner torment.  Inner torment, or any emotional state is not so easy to express in a work of art.  You can feel an emotion strongly, but to get that emotion symbolized in an image so that others feel what you are feeling is a difficult feat of communication.  My father says that that this work of art is so disturbing that if you took your thumb and placed it over the screaming figure that the landscape alone would communicate anxiety.  My father paints landscapes, and so he would recognize a landscape that held in it something supremely unique.   This is the landscape of Munch's memory, perhaps distorted by his anxiety, definitely re-created to communicate his mood.  The red of the sky get redder because of its juxtaposition against the blue of the sea.  And it is not red that we have reflected in the sea but emptiness, a bone color that divides and surrounds the undulating red waves in the sky.

 I see compositionally that the diagonal line of the hand railing teleports the background red sky directly into frontal space.  The sky, the viewer, and the screaming figure are all linked by the hand railing.  And I think that any time you have such a bold diagonal running through the picture frame it runs the unnerving risk of dividing the image.  And an image usually such divided creates psychic disturbance because we want harmony and balance in the picture, and this is usually achieved by interrelatedness and repetition.  One spot here is like the other spot there.  That promise of continuity soothes our awareness.  As we are told by Abraham Lincoln that "a house divided against itself cannot not stand", an image with a bold dividing line threatens to scatter the parts.  In this particular image it is the overreaching sky that is not interrupted but instead flows from edge to edge that saves us from the severity of  the hand rail projected almost straight at us.  And of course theatrically what do we have at the end of the hand rail, as if it were the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or the essence to anchor and mend the division of parts, - is a little man screaming.  There is a slight reference to death in his countenance - he has no hair- as if his skull were exposed directly by the knob of bone beneath, skin stripped away.  Blue lips echo the shape of his head. And the hands are clasped to either side of the face, as if, in body language the screaming man is saying "all this is too much for me, I'm overwhelmed,  I withdraw, I try to save the parts of me that have not been stripped away by my experience."

As an artist I also notice that that the image isn't precious.  And what I mean by that is that it has been done swiftly and emphatically without a slow and methodical process and too much attention to minute detail.  Perhaps there were plans and rough drafts - I wouldn't be surprised - but the final product deals in essences and bold simplicity.  This pastel could have been drawn in a day.  I find it fascinating that the artist repeated the same image in different mediums during a seventeen year span of time.  It is like being haunted by the exact same re-occurring dream.  This dream is trying to express something vital to the soul.

In the analysis I read about the sale of this work, is that the price went so high because the image has become an icon in our culture.  Mention to most intelligent people the name of the artwork and in their head they see a vision of what Munch did.  It has been repeated and repeated on mugs, tee-shirts and referenced by other artist's artwork.  Does it stick in our minds because it is repeated by popular culture or is the repetition an homage to a fundamental fact that at one time or another we have all felt like the little screaming man in the artwork?  We identify because locked in us all is that terrible place of an inner scream.  And the artwork validates for us our experience, it says, humanity is united in the extremes that we must submit to.  Some of us submit and endure, others go under and self-destruct.

Not all experts in the art world have good things to say about"The Scream". 

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times's chief art critic, is not a fan. The Scream's popularity, she believes, derives from a tendency to regard artforms prefixed with adjectives like "edgy", "dark" and "disturbing" as somehow superior to those which are light and joyful.  Indeed, she draws an analogy with a teenager listening to overwrought, depressing music in their bedroom, before learning as they grow older to appreciate a songwriter like Bob Dylan who deals with subtler, more complex emotions.
"The Scream is almost childish in its directness," she says. "That's why you see it in so many university halls of residence. What you get out of that painting is not something that deepens over time.
"It appeals to an immature taste. As you get older you want something different - art that transforms the everyday rather than goes to the extremes of human emotion."

But I have to disagree with Rachel Campbell-Johnston.  Some people - the strong ones - have no fears of the extremes of human emotion.  Me, being schizophrenic, I have no choice sometimes but to live with crippling dark emotional states.  I live with them, let them wash over me, and in time, have even an edge with them because they are familiar and recognized as just me being me.  Recovery from schizophrenia has evolved from a state of wanting to do battle with darkness (kill the sickness) to acceptance of darkness as something that ultimately won't harm me (there is no sickness, just altered states of being).  In order to survive to maturity with this illness I had to absorb it.  Yes, at times, there is a little man screaming inside of me.  But I know that given a bit of time he will stop screaming and other little men will step into his place.  There is the one that basks in simple sunshine, the one that is addicted to bright colors in art, the one that delights in giving and receiving love.  

I will tell you what I think.  If you are sensitive to pain, this is good, because you will be sensitive to the absence of pain.  If you know deep sadness, you are capable of experiencing profound joy.  There is a spectrum to the emotions and a life lived with passion does not deny the currents that flow under our exterior, rather, these currents are identified, examined, and absorbed then disbanded in an ever flowing circle.  I think "The Scream" is embraced by the masses not because the masses are immature, but because most people feel secret kinship with its message.  We move on as adults to a place, hopefully, where adversity and pain does not cut us quite so deeply, but you would be a fool to think this is merely because we deny or suppress or (God forbid), never have anymore the negative experiences.  We simply handle unhappiness differently from when we were young.   Artworks that express only subtly and beauty are appreciated but so is the crude, the energetic, the shocking in art.  Ideally as the individual matures he or she broadens, strengthened, and is still delighted by what is new and different.

Sometimes we want warmth, sometimes we need a pin prick.

If you fear or scorn authenticity in all its wild audacious variety  (and "The Scream" is above all about authentic human emotion) then some part of you is being sorely suppressed.  To your detriment.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Feeling Good, Feeling Crazy

I brought my drawing to the framers in town and they scratched "The Gift".  The man's thigh has a green border, the scratch was white through the green and then it moved into the middle of the flesh.  I told the framer than when I had brought the drawing in the thigh of the man had been smooth.  Now it was not.  The framer was very quiet.  Nervous I think.  Waiting for me to blow up like a volcano.  But I said I could fix it.  I didn't know if it would be hard or easy, but it was quite easy.  The framer's are really lucky that they damaged a piece that had been brought in by the artist that created it, and of course, that it was in a medium that could be fixed.  I brought back the drawing yesterday and immediately they put it in its frame.  It now looks really, really good.  It must be the framer's worst nightmare that they damage a customer's art.  Like lawsuit nightmare.  Plus, everyone in town says that they are expensive but that they do such a good job that they are worth it.  So they have a reputation to uphold.  The framer said that he was going to have to review the process by which artworks are handled.  And they gave me a $20 gift certificate.

My worst nightmare is getting a flat tire.  Which I did.  I was parking the car in front of my therapist's office and hit the curb.  The curb ripped the tire.  I had AAA.  So by the end of my therapy appointment a man had come and put on the spare.  They said they would be about an hour, which was perfect, I could have my therapy  while I waited.  After I had called AAA my therapist asked me how I was doing.  Of course I was highly nervous, after all my worst nightmare had just happened and a part of me wanted to be silly and cry, but I said reflexively that I was good.  He made much of this answer.  Apparently there have been lots of days in the past when I walked into my therapists a mess and could not, even offhandedly, say I was good.  He said that healing had occurred.  I think I just like life more on less meds.

My husband said that the number one difference in his eyes between me on this dose of medication and a much higher dose is that now I never say "I want to die".  Apparently this was an expression he said I would use (theatrically?) several times a week.  The worst that its ever gotten recently was the night before a dentist appointment when I said I couldn't see the future.  I didn't want to die but I felt like my life was going to end.  I was just really scared.  Because of the types of medications I take my dentist won't give me normal Novocaine.  She uses an alternate that numbs, but not as deeply.  I need multiple shots during the procedure, and she only knows to give me more AFTER I've cringed from pain. And too there is a limit of how much she can give.  So going to the dentist is a major source of anxiety.

I feel like I want to say to my therapist, "fix me, I'm too neurotic".  I worry so much.  I anticipate little things that are supposed to happen tomorrow with strong feelings of fear.  And usually its all for nothing, like with the flat tire.  Things go well.  Nighttime, after a busy day, is really bad.  I sometimes before bed tell my husband I feel crazy.  But there is nothing crazy about me other than that I'm super stressed and usually worried about something.  No psychosis. No suicidal thinking.  A perfect cure for the crazies is lying in bed with my head on my husband's stomach.  He strokes my hair or my back.  His touch soothes.  I feel safe.  I feel loved.

My husband repeated to me a scene from a play he saw ten years ago.  It was preformed at the psycho-social clubhouse where we first met.  The actors all had mental illness and had created the sketches that they performed themselves.  This sketch was about a guy who had gone off his meds.  He was lying on a couch.  He friend comes to visit and asks how he's doing.  "I'm feeling really creative" he replies.  "What did you create?" asks the friend.  "Well, nothing yet but I know something is coming because my thoughts are really good and really creative."  He friend says, well, why don't you come out with me and we'll do something.  "No" says the guy on the couch, "I don't feel like doing anything.  I'm just going to lay here."

The point of the sketch was that subjectively off meds a schizophrenic might feel good, and more creative, but objectively they have lost motivation, get little done, and live an inferior quality of life.

I ask my husband again and again if I seem normal.  And he says that I act normal.  But I swear, there are times when I feel as mad as a hatter.  Its all internal.  The worst that happens is I crawl into bed or tear up and complain.

Creatively I don't know how the med change has affected me, but I seem to have lost a little motivation.  Not much, but it is the negative symptoms.  Lack of will power.  Some household chores seem harder now to accomplish.  But I am happier, just, a little less effective. 

One big change on the lower dose of meds is that I don't sleep as much.  I sleep 6 to 8 hours a night rather than 10 to 12 hours.  This means that my days are longer and I have much more free time.  The amount that I can concentrate and work on art is about the same, three hours.  So I have a lot of extra time where I'm all alone wondering what to do, usually because my husband works the day and then an hour and a half overtime.  I feel more lonely on less meds. I really have no friends in town, other than some little old ladies from church.  How I would love an artist friend.

So I've started going downtown in the afternoons, (downtown is two blocks from my house) after making art and then some rest, and bringing a book to a coffeehouse.  I have a great library of art books.  I need to get out and be with people.  It kinda sucks that I'm not actually having a conversation with anyone, but it is some food for the soul just to be in human company.  I drink coffee and look at my art book.  Sneak peeks at people.  Its not an exciting life, but I've designed all my theatrics to center around art creation.  Isolation, craziness, and art.  And my husband and my animals.  My siblings and parents on the distant outside circles of my peculiar, mentally ill life.  I don't know if it is heaven or hell.  Sometimes it feels like one, sometimes like the other.  And it can flip flop in the course of three hours.

Since I made that last drawing I've been rather dry creatively.  It seems it took a lot out of me.  I've tried to start another drawing but all I can see is the imagery of what I've just completed.  Its like it is burned into my mind.  And I worry that I can't do better, or at least, equal.  It is really hard to give the drawing away, especially since I don't know if it will be liked or appreciated.  I want to keep it.  I have a spot in my bedroom where I can hang it.  So I think I should hurry up and send it away before I lose the battle to be generous.  Just this morning I was wondering if Van Gogh's famous painting of his doctor who treated him at the insane asylum was given to the doctor as a gift.  I was betting that Van Gogh didn't give it away freely, that he was hoping to sell it.  Maybe, I wondered, if he had given art away as gifts he would not have been lead down the path to despair and shot himself.  I think it mattered to him greatly that nobody in Paris was buying his art.  His art was on display, his brother was an art dealer.  Is there a lesson, that if you give work away when you can't sell it your chances of survival in this life are better?

I like to take myself seriously.  But I can see the merit in acting like a fool.  I think too much of my pain in life is a result of taking myself too seriously.