Existential Superstar

Another look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

“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.” A sunset stroll along a road above an Oslo fjord, a blood-red sky, a sensation of nameless dread: This is how the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) described the visionary experience that inspired him to create The Scream— his most famous work and one of the most recognizable images in modern art.

Like most contemporary cultural icons, The Scream is known primarily through copies and parodies. The image has appeared on T-shirts, mousepads, coffee mugs, key-chains, and is a popular tattoo. But peel back a few layers of familiarity and the intensity of the original artwork is still there. Munch painted four versions of The Scream in 1893, all in mixed media—pencil, paints, and pastels—on cardboard, the poor man’s canvas. (He also produced the image as a black-and-white lithograph, which some find even more powerful than the paintings.) If you’ve never seen these works in the flesh, you’ll have your chance this winter when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opens the exhibition, Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul (Feb. 19—May 8, 2006). In the meantime, Sue Prideaux’s excellent new biography, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, provides some deep background about the artist’s turbulent life and tormented psyche.

Edvard Munch was born in 1863 and raised in Oslo. Though the Munchs were a prominent family of churchmen and intellectuals, Edvard’s father was an impoverished army doctor whose hellfire Christianity planted the seeds of religious anxiety in young Edvard. “The angels of fear, sorrow and death stood by my side since the day I was born,” he later wrote in his diary. “They stood by my bedside when I shut my eyes, threatening me with death, hell and eternal damnation.” Munch’s was a haunted youth. When he was 5, his mother died of tuberculosis; his favorite sister, Sophie, succumbed when he was 14. When he was 25, his father died; soon after, his sister, Laura, went mad and was committed to an asylum.

Lots to scream about

After a brief, unhappy stint at technical college, Munch decided to become a painter. He rented a studio in Oslo’s bohemian quarter, where he quickly fell under the influence of Hans Jaeger, a nihilist philosopher and man-about-town whose avowed aim was to drive every member of his generation to corruption or suicide. Munch chose the former, and spent the next decade living a Bohemian rhapsody of absinthe, opium, syphilis, tortured love affairs, hunger, poverty, and painting. His deliberately unfinished-looking, expressive style earned him the nickname “Bizzarro.” But his work was well-received in Paris and especially in Berlin, where he was revered by younger German Expressionists like Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

As a young artist, Munch was profoundly influenced by Dostoevsky. “No one in art,” he told a friend, “has yet penetrated as far [as Dostoevsky] into the mystical realms of the soul, towards the metaphysical, the subconscious …” Munch’s great ambition—to paint the life of the soul—found its most important expression in The Frieze of Life, a series of paintings he produced in the 1890s. TheFrieze symbolically recounts the story of an archetypal man and woman as they progress from love and passion, to jealousy and melancholy, to anxiety and death. The Scream, which comes near the end of the cycle, represents the apogee of anxiety, the soul’s final breaking point. In an early version, Munch placed the central figure next to the railing, gazing down at the fjord in a classic melancholic pose. But in the final—now iconic—version, Munch’s strangely sexless figure stands before a violently swirling landscape and stares directly out at the viewer, hands pressed to its skull-like head, mouth contorted in a rictus of keening despair.

While The Scream readily lends itself to a gut-level response, there have been many focused readings. Some have interpreted the work as a representation of the state of panicky chaos that precedes creative inspiration. The painting has been linked with Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God, and also with Schopenhauer’s concept of dread—in particular, with a passage in Philosophie der Kunst in which Schopenhauer argues that the expressive potential of pictorial art is limited by its inability to represent a scream. Munch rose to the challenge, though he claimed that he didn’t come across the passage in Schopenhauer until much later in his life.

Sometimes the interpreters overreached themselves. In 2003, several astronomers reported that the blood-red sky in The Scream was actually a realistic rendering of the blazing sunsets caused by detritus from the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa in 1883. While it may be true that Norway had some great sunsets in the 1880s, this kind of quaintly literal interpretation doesn’t apply to an artist like Munch, whose style was predominantly expressive rather than descriptive. This is not to say that we should ignore context altogether. Prideaux, in her discussion of the painting, identifies the location depicted in The Scream as Ekeberg, a hill to the east of Oslo that affords an overhead view of the fjord. Oslo’s main slaughterhouse was in Ekeberg, and so was its madhouse, in which Munch’s sister, Laura, was incarcerated. He almost certainly went up there to visit her. Though Prideaux refrains from drawing any firm conclusions about this, she does note that “the screams of animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear.”

Though The Scream was fairly well known during Munch’s lifetime, it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that advances in printing technology propelled it to the status of a cultural icon. While relatively few people can afford a trip to Oslo to view the original paintings, millions have seen the image reproduced in full color. But with its rise in fame, The Scream has had a corresponding fall in gravitas. What was once a serious expression of existential dread is now a self-mocking symbol of the stress of modern life. “Stuck in traffic?” asks an ad for a Scream keychain. “Your keychain understands exactly how you feel.”

If The Scream is Norway’s most famous painting, it is also its most vulnerable. In 1994, at the start of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, the Norwegian National Gallery’s painting of The Scream—considered to be the best one—was stolen by thieves who demanded a ransom of $1 million for the painting. The Norwegian government refused to pay; three months later, the painting was recovered undamaged in a hotel room south of Oslo. More recently, in August 2004, another version of The Scream was stolen at gunpoint from the Edvard Munch Museum, along with Munch’s erotic Madonna. These paintings are still missing. For now, we can only imagine this rendition of Munch’s fragile masterpiece hidden away in the darkness somewhere, behind locked doors, screaming silently.