I scream, you scream . . . but Munch's man doesn't
‘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.
Before he came up with the iconic image, indeed, Munch began with a much more conventional portrayal of late-19th-century existential despair. In 1891 or 1892, he wrote a version of the prose poem just quoted in his notebook and drew the scene next to it. There is no strange humanoid figure. Munch is merely leaning glumly on the railing. The only phantasmagoric aspect of the drawing is two blood-red clouds. The painting that Munch made from this sketch is called, ever so conventionally, Despair.
The Scream utterly transforms the same impulse and scene. The 1895 version is wilder and more lurid than the two that Munch had made in 1893.
There are many differences of detail; the most important is the way the bridge loses all remnants of solidity and becomes a psychedelic projection of the natural elements that seem to engulf it.
The series of strokes with which it is etched mirror the colours of those elements: the red and yellow of the sky, the blue of the sea, the green of the land.
The humanoid figure, meanwhile, virtually melts into the sea: its body the same colour as the water, its face matching the pool of light in which a solitary ship floats. The whole effect is rawly immediate, vertiginous and almost nauseous – vastly more powerful than the flat, familiar, endlessly reproduced icon.
What we have here is no longer a statement about human alienation and despair. It’s an image of the apocalypse. The point is not that poor Edvard is having one of those days when everything gets on top of you and you want to scream. It’s that nature itself is exploding in a deafening howl. The vision is close to that of WB Yeats in The Second Coming : “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
And what, in this context, is that strange alien creature? Surely an image of birth turned to death. It is a foetus – as is clear from a similar creature in Munch’s print Madonna. But it is also the head of a mummy: Munch had seen one in Paris and used its creepy blankness in other paintings. The combination is horrifying.
So how on earth can such a terrifyingly apocalyptic image have become so cosy a part of popular culture? By turning it back into something much smaller: a picture of individual angst. Munch took a personal moment of psychological terror and turned it into a cosmic drama. He took a cliche and gave it a mythic charge.
Contemporary culture has reversed the process. We’ve turned The Scream back into a familiar icon.