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.


  1. Dear Karen,

    I've been going through my own personal scream these last few days, but I shall prevail! We all have this anxiety in us and this work of art hits the mark in an obvious, but effective way. And I agree that it is not an easy thing to portray extremes of emotion in art work. I think part of the fascination with great artists is that though some of their work may seem quick and even casual in application, they have hours and hours that have stretched into years of practice. That's what I love about visual artists in particular, their dedication to looking at things or creating images from many different angles. And then there's the use of color with all of its various combinations, a whole language in itself.

    No, I'm like you, I respond to authenticity in people and in art. Genuine, bona fide art is not trying to impress, rather it is trying to convey something heartfelt in an intelligent, skillful way. And there can be skill in something that is done quickly, but as I said the practice that went into it was probably long and complex. It's the same for dancers and musicians; it gets into the body and becomes natural and sometimes spontaneous and that is very cool to witness.

    Pain is a tough issue, but I tend to agree with you there, too. Those of us who have gone to some hard psychological places also have a great capacity to appreciate the absence of pain and ultimately great pleasure and joy. The trick is not to lose sight of that and appreciate the good when it comes, and really, it always returns, maybe in small ways at first, but it's there and it is healing.

    The man screaming has a place in our interior world as does Icarus ascending on borrowed wings that fall off in the heat of the sun (was that Brueghel?). They are the authentic expressions of the fears, hopes and folly of humankind. But there is joy too. For some reason I am thinking of a large painting by Matisse of dancers holding hands and dancing in a circle. I think I've actually seen it up close and to me it is a joyful painting as were his colorful paper collages that he did as his eyesight began to fail.

    I like that you are taking the time to really study and respond to great works of art. I hope you continue with it and keep sharing your thoughts here. Thanks for writing Karen,

    Love, Kate : )

  2. The Party (1966) by Herbert Brown .........Look up this painting........Its right up your alley...sorry the pun..ha,ha

    ps. I am finally divine. I will bleed the stone til there is no dust left and all is revealed........

  3. Hi Karen,

    Thank you for sharing information about this art- how it came about to the artist, the auction, differing attitudes about it and above all your thoughts on it.

    You made some powerful conclusions about this 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."

    As an individual living with schizophrenia and who shares my story as it relates to mental health I think I am one who embraces the illness in order to learn to cope, to love myself, and to move forward in life appreciating my sanity; my ability to focus and to write, and my ability to maintain relationships again- things I was not able to do while not well and not living life to the fullest because I did not understand what was going on with me. Now I have a better understanding of my illness and myself, therefore I am enduring.

    In addition to that, you ended with: "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."

    I like "The Scream" because an individual can almost feel the torment, dread, fear, pain, anguish, and other negative emotions a person can feel when they have a mental illness for example, or other experiences such as feeling trapped in a bad relationship, grieving the loss of a loved one, and many other emotions that come with life.

    But I also like bright, intricate pieces of artwork, or art that represents an ancient or native culture.


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