Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

The (Partially Aborted) Munch Lecture: Part 4 (The Scream)

“Did you ever hear the cry of heaven?  No?  Well, let me tell you I did, I saw heaven crying;  It seemed as if the whole sky opened its thousands of mouths and hurled down molten colors into space.  The whole sky, an endless expanse of stripes ranging in color from from dark red to black.  Congealed blood – no, a pool reflecting a purple sunset, and then dirty gold.  Ugly, disgusting, but superb.”

-From Munch’s friend Stanislaw Przybyszewski’s 1896 novel Overboard,  in a direct response to The Scream

“But Mother, dear Mother, please tell me,/Before I  go up to bed,/ Why are my yellow curls falling,/Falling off my head?/And why is the sky so red?/Why is the sky so red…”

John Cheever, The Wapshop Scandal

The Scream

It is important to stress that many of the events I describe in these postings on Munch occurred concomitantly, and that linearity is tricky.  It has also come to my attention that my blog posts are quite long – too long – severely diminishing the chances of anyone reading them to completion, to which, astonished, I look up from my coffee and say “You mean people read these?  Even the beginnings?”  This post deals entirely with The Scream and its predecessors from the Munch oeuvre.  It has been my intention to work within a reasonable chronological trajectory, but having visited MoMA last week to see the newly auctioned pastel version, and with an awareness that this is by far the artist’s best-known work, I am giving it a post all of its own, trusting that the reader is aware that this is at once a general history interspersed with personal observations and opinions, none of which delve deep enough to do the work full justice.  And so:

During the late 19th century and into the 20th century Munch gave a title to his emerging body of work which encompassed the overarching themes of love, death, life and (re)birth.  The title was The Frieze Of Life.  It was meant it to embody his intentions set forth in the Saint Cloud Manifesto, wherein he aspired to an art that would be viewed with a reverence usually reserved for reverence, as worship in church, to draw viewers into a quasi narrative of the human drama.  It was also his way of ensuring that the work hung together, frieze-like, in order for the drama to unfold before the viewer as a would life itself.  Excepting portraits and some landscapes, almost all of his work done before 1910 fits into this body.  He never made a definitive list of the intended work, but Melancholy, Despair, Death in the Sick Room, Ashes, and most all of the other post 1893 work we have thus far examined were included.  When one of the pictures sold, Munch would hastily re-paint it so that it could re-assume its place in the physical narrative.  This penchant for redoing work is indicative of his intense, almost fanatical attachment to his paintings, which he referred to as his children, and could not bare to be parted from (the repainted versions are sometimes inferior replicas, although many exhibit a vigor and haste which are striking in their move towards a purer Expressionistic style).

Last week I visited the MoMA’s small Munch exhibition touting the recently auctioned pastel version of The Scream.  I’ll discuss this particular version in a moment, but we would be remiss not to begin with Munch’s first and most famous painted version of The Scream, as it is not only his best known work, but has come to symbolize (cloyingly so) the existential anxieties of the modern age.

The original 1893 version painted on canvas.

It never gets old.  The original 1893 version painted on canvas.

Even reproducing it here is jarring (and despite the endless string of inflatable Screams, screaming Homer Simpsons and Scream-shaped foam stress balls, I am certain it has surpassed Grant Wood’s American Gothic as the most egregiously parodied painting of all time sometime in the last 15 years).  It still accomplishes everything it set out to do, and even if Munch was indeed pandering to the morbid trends of his day, there is no question that this could only have been painted in a fit of anxiety by an artist with a deeply troubled mind.  The figure is wholly unique in its utter lack of sex/gender – a wraith-like stand-in for every individual plodding through the modern, ever-changing landscape of life and progress.  The setting is Ljqbroveien, an elevated walkway on the hill of Ekeberg in east Oslo overlooking the Oslofjord and Hovedøya.  This was in close proximity both to Oslo’s slaughterhouse and the lunatic asylum where Munch’s sister Laura (whose portrait we saw in an earlier post) was incarcerated.  It is said that from this location, the screams of the patients mingled with shrieks of dying animals could be heard on occasion, so the title may have some literal connotations.  Nevertheless, the famous commentary written by Munch on this piece reads as follows:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun set.  I felt a tinge of melancholy.  Suddenly the sky turned a bloody red.  I stopped, leaning on the fence.  I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.  My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with fright – and I felt an loud, unending scream piercing nature.”

There is little one can say about a work of which so much has been written (see Reinhold Heller’s book on the work from the 1980s, or any of the several recent monographs, of which there have been many), but one can comment on the different versions of the piece and, in a timely fashion, the record-breaking sale of the “2nd version” which sold at Sotheby’s in May of 2012 for $120 million.  This record price topped what had previously been the highest priced painting ever sold, Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which went for $106.5 million.  Pablo Picasso might never have been called an asshole, but I wonder what he’d think about Munch outselling him?

The recently auctioned, record-setting pastel version drawn in 1895, two years after the original.

The recently auctioned, record-setting pastel version drawn in 1895, two years after the original.

I cannot but assert that this is a far inferior version, both to the original painting shown above, and to the black and white lithographic version shown below.  What makes it a true rarity, aside from its one-of-a-kind status as a pastel (it is not a painting, but a drawing), is that it is still housed in its original frame containing the plate upon which Munch scratched in the gloomy paragraph quoted above.  The head here seems detached, or as if the figure is about to lift it from its neck.  There is a frenetic, swirling energy in the lines: both the swirling skies and curving figure and fjord, and the dashed strait horizontal lines comprising the walkway that contrast so well with the undulating shapes of the former.  Alas, the richness of the original is gone, and the crayon-drawn head is so faint as to withhold the direct confrontation with the viewer that make the other versions so arresting.  It should be added that this is also the only version wherein one of the other two figures leans against the railing (rather than walking on, as described in Munch’s writing), bringing to mind Despair of 1892:

"Despair", painted one year before the original version of "The Scream"

“Despair”, painted one year before the original version of “The Scream”

or this version done in 1893-94:

A second version of "Despair" done around the time of the first "Scream."

A second version of “Despair” done around the time of the first “Scream.”

The dates of these two versions of Despair barely preclude The Scream, and while it is possible that Munch was working on all of these at once (as he was known to work on several paintings simultaneously) they are more likely precursors of The Scream, which became a kind of shorthand, in-your-face culmination of the subject.   The figure has been paired down to the skeletal shell of a human so as to embody the sentiments of fear and terror, communicated in the most direct way possible.  It is not surprising, then, that he continued to use the walkway on the hill of Ekebergalong in subsequent works, as its sense of terror from the screams of animals and patients, along with its vertiginous heights and claustrophobic space, embodied a setting rife with paralysis, paranoia, and hints at agoraphobia.

"Anxiety" of 1894, done between versions of "The Scream", brings a different sense of isolation to the viewer: that of agoraphobia and the detached, ghost-like automatons that we count among our fellow human beings.

“Anxiety” of 1894, done between versions of “The Scream”, brings a different sense of isolation to the viewer: that of agoraphobia and the detached, ghost-like automatons that we count among our fellow human beings.

Before ending on the glorious, bare-bones black and white lithographic version, we should touch for a moment on the theories surrounding Munch’s use of color in The Scream (and the other, similar versions/variations we have looked at) and address the (bullshit) theory that the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa in the west Indies in 1883 had some influence on Munch’s color choice.  During the months spanning from 1883 to 84, the eruption tinted many of the skies around the Western hemisphere, and it has been posited that this comprised part of Munch’s memory and was put into the work in the form of literal representation.  Now Munch did write from time to time that he did in fact see the sky turn this color, but he would have been twenty years old at the time of the eruption and possibly traveling – in any case still battling it out with Realism and Norwegian Impressionism.  So while it is a quaint theory, the fact remains that Munch was a painter artist so innovative in his use of form, line, mark-making and subject matter that there is every reason to believe his artistic trajectory was moving toward a new, bolder palette.  Furthermore, he was familiar with other artists (particularly Paul Gaugin) who took great liberties with color in landscape.  It is with subtle roll of the eyes that I dismiss this theory entirely, as fun as it may be to play amateur art-historian-cum-historical meteorologist.

The Lithographic Version

The lithographic version of the same year as the pastel (1895) with full borders and what translates as "The Cry" written on the stone under the image.

The lithographic version of the same year as the pastel (1895) with full borders and what translates as “The Cry” written on the stone under the image.

The lithograph was created the same year as the first version of The Scream, in 1893.  More woodcut-like in its use of stark contrast and painted with liquid touche on the stone, it gave Munch a forum to focus exclusively on the tension of the severe horizontal line and undulating shapes.  Once again the figure confronts us directly.

The process of editioning prints (that is, making a set of identical prints and numbering them as is conventional in the art world today) held no interest for Munch.  Printed in Berlin in the Liebmann shop, he experimented with a wide variety of papers, and hand-painted many of these.  Of the black and white versions, about 25 are known to exist.  Rarer still are the versions with the printed German text as shown above, which read “I felt the great scream through nature.”

This work marked a turning point in Munch’s career, as many of his fellow countrymen, upon his return to Norway from Berlin, were decidedly and once-and-for-all convinced of his insanity (largely based on this piece).  A small handfull of his contemporaries (most notably the critic Sigbjorn Obstfelder and the Symbolist critic and avant-garde publisher Thadée Natanson) recognized the work(s) as a turning point for modern art, giving Munch both the means and courage to return to Paris to begin one of his most productive periods of constant work and frequent travel.

The 3rd and final version, painted in 1910 in tempera on cardboard, indicative that Munch never abandoned a subject.

The 3rd and final version, painted in 1910 (17 years after the original) in tempera on cardboard, indicative that Munch never abandoned a subject.


For the record:  this is the only piece of Scream swag I can stomach (just saying, my birthday’s coming up fast – June is right around the corner.  The bleak, icy corner).


Filed under: Edvard Munch, , , , , , ,

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