I scream, you scream . . . but Munch's man doesn't
Touch of melancholy: the 1895 version of Edvard Munch's The Scream
‘Iconic” is the most overused word in contemporary criticism, but it really does apply to Edvard Munch’s image – or, rather, series of images, made between 1893 and 1910 – The Scream. It must be the most parodied, ripped-off, pastiched and yet venerated artwork of the past two centuries.
Andy Warhol copied it is as the epitome of the infinitely reproducible image. It lies behind so many other familiar images: movie posters from Pink Floyd’s The Wall to Macauley Culkin’s Home Alone, the killer’s mask in Wes Craven’s Scream movies, aliens on Doctor Who. Political cartoonists love it. So do advertisers: there’s a version with an MM sweet playing hopscotch along the bridge in the background.
And, of course, The Scream doesn’t just sell sweeties, it sells itself. Three of the four versions that Munch created are in public museums in Norway. The fourth, rarely seen, is on temporary display at MoMA in New York until the end of April. It is a relatively small pastel on paper – essentially a crayon drawing. It was sold in May for €90 million to the private-equity whizz Leon Black, making it nominally the most expensive painting ever bought at auction. This alone gives it a golden glow of reverence. Hence the paradox of The Scream: it inspires both hushed awe and playful appropriation.
So what does this image mean? Why is it so extraordinarily popular? The 1895 version at MoMA allows us to go back to Munch’s own version of its origins. For it is actually a composite image. There is an especially interesting version of the familiar configuration of an alien-like figure, a bridge with two men in the background and a swirling panorama of sky, sea, city and hills. But there is also a hand-painted plaque on which Munch inscribed a kind of prose-poem: “I was walking along the road with two of my friends. The sun set – the sky became a bloody red. And I felt a touch of melancholy – I stood still, dead tired – over the blue-black fjord and the city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on – I stayed behind – trembling with fright – I felt the great scream in nature.”
This is important because it tells us where the scream is coming from. It is not, as is often imagined, emanating from the open mouth of the strange figure. Rather that figure is covering its ears against a deafening shriek uttered by the world itself. The scream is in “nature”, not in a man’s head.
The standard notion of The Scream as an expression of existential angst, even of mental illness, seems questionable: not for nothing is the original German title Der Schrei der Natur: The Scream of Nature.