It’s a Scream, Baby: Edvard Munch’s "The Scream"

April 27, 2013 — “Step back over the line, please.” I looked up at the figure in front of me. It was bald, pale, its head almost misshapen by the hands pressed against its ears. The mouth and eyes were full of terror and agony. I would do anything it said. But the order didn’t come from the figure. It came from the guard beside it, keeping people at a reasonable distance. It was, after all, a $120 million painting.

He's saying, "Look out behind you!"
I was introduced to Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream like most people my age. Through the bedrooms and dorm rooms of countless teenagers in sitcoms and movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. No adolescent nest was complete without a four-foot-tall inflatable version of the figure in the painting…unless they went with the four-foot-tall inflatable Godzilla. Those were decades of choices, man.

That’s embarrassing, but it’s not my fault that The Scream is one of those few pieces of fine art so fine it punctured through the thick bubble of the art world right into popular culture. Which means it either represents a universal truth profoundly realized or panders to the masses with easy themes. Or both. The world’s kind of complicated.

Munch created four versions of this particular artwork over the course of the 1890s, as well as a lithograph to make prints from. Of the actual paintings, three are in museums in Norway (when they’re not being heisted, that is), and the last one is part of a private collection.

As a result, unless you’re Scandinavian (or made it past the top five countries you want to scratch off your bucket list) or run in shiny circles of bloated wealth, it’s extremely hard to see an original up close.

Fortunately for us poorer folk, the privately held version transferred ownership in 2012…for $119,922,500, the highest price ever paid for a single work of art at auction. Being rich enough to drop that kind of cash means he’s rich enough to like to flaunt that wealth (I also assume it means rich enough to own a massive collection of inflatable Scream dolls).

The collector loaned it out temporarily to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for public display. I caught it just a few weeks ago. Oh, and let me tell you right now that the exhibit ends, well, tomorrow. The timing of this post wasn’t on purpose. I’m just genetically a jerk.

The other versions Munch created were in tempera and colored pencil. This one, though…Crayola. Technically, the media is called pastels, but it’s basically crayons. And, up close, you can really tell. The strokes are coarse and imprecise and really help give the piece that reality-warping feel that it’s famous for. Eerily, the artist left the face and hands uncolored, instead leaving them defined by the surrounding crayon strokes. It makes the strange central figure appear even stranger. Ghost-like maybe. Then again, I always lost the peach crayon when I was a kid, too. The work is in its original rough wooden frame, with a plaque on the bottom of it with Munch’s story of the painting’s origin.

Let me take a crack at describing the piece first before I get to that story, though. I realize I have pictures to go along with this post, but I really need to start asserting my value on an Internet that more and more hates words. The image is set on a wooden bridge or a pier or, heck, even possibly the deck of a ship. The sky is the violent red color of sunset. Two thin, vague forms walk across the planks in the background while, in the foreground, a bald, sinuous, extremely alien-looking person with features that are barely featured faces the, um, camera while clapping his hands to his ears and opening his mouth in a tall oval.

According to the artist, it represents a man reacting to a terrible scream from the natural word itself and was based on an experience that he actually had. From the frame, including his edits:
I went along the road with two friends—
The sun set
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness
A tearing pain beneath my heartI stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord of blood dripped reeking with blood
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound
in my breast trembling with anxiety I heard a huge extraordinary
scream pass through nature.
But like all art, it transcends what the artist intended or even knows about it.

According to other interpretations, the figure itself is screaming, at what he just saw behind him, at the two figures approaching him, what’s happening below frame to him, or what’s currently going on in front of him. I like this latter one, because that means he’s screaming at the people looking at the piece of art (his “fans,” you could say). Also I might have made up the “below frame” one because I have a dirty mind. 

In the room at MoMa, when nobody’s around, the figure is screaming at van Gogh’s Starry Night, located directly opposite The Scream. Which might even turn the figure’s expression to one of wonder or reduce Starry Night to a tableau of horror. I’m cool with either one of those.

Other interpretations that I’m just going to make up here to give this piece the length demanded of heavy art criticism include that the image is of the apocalypse, all angry red sky and swirly landscape, and that the figure is reacting to the pain of having his flesh ripped from him, which explains why his face bears a similarity to that of a burn victim.

Or it’s just an overly dramatic dude whose hat blew off into the water.

Although The Scream was the center point of the exhibit, there were other Munch works set around the dim, gray, hardly camera-friendly room, including the creepy, but not as soul-shattering Madonna (although it does have a fetus-like version of the Scream figure in the lower corner). She bore the place of honor on the opposite side of the standing wall that displayed The Scream.

Anyway, like I said, in just another day, all that’ll be left of The Scream at MoMA is an echo. But I can honestly tell you now that the painting sounds just as good live.