The Scream (or, Edvard Munch, part two)

Edvard Munch’s most popular work by far is “The Scream”.  It was part of his project titled ‘The Frieze of Life’, which consisted of roughly two dozen paintings that dealt with emotions and the human condition.  “The Scream” however, is very different from all of the other works in the ‘Frieze’.

First, all of the other works are painted in true Munch style in oil on canvas, as were most of his works.  He painted “The Scream” in tempera paint (a basic paint similar to poster paint) and pastels on a piece of cardboard, much like that which a box is made of.  These are not archival materials in any sense, but he managed to paint “The Scream” at least four times, each time on a piece of cardboard.  Do the delicate materials used represent Munch’s delicate mental state at the time?

Second, Munch was famous for working and reworking his paintings and making copies of them, or, tossing them if dissatisfied and starting over completely.  The other works of ‘The Freize’ have a finished look, one that took time and a more even method of technique.  “The Scream” on the other hand, is a much different style for Munch, painted fast and furiously, almost as if he could not paint fast enough to get the idea out of his head.  So, how did “The Scream” come to be?  Why add a piece that when compared to the others looks almost abstract in technique and subject matter?

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch, tempera and pastel on cardboard, ca. 1883-1889, collection The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

Munch’s diaries and other notes of record indicate he and some friends were walking along a road near the water’s edge on a November evening in 1883.  When the sun set that night, it turned the sky a bloody red.  Already in a frail mental state, Munch froze, paralyzed with fear, while his friends continued on, apparently oblivious to the scene at hand.  What did Edvard Munch actually see, that would have such a profound effect on him?  Many theories are out there, but physicists Don Olson and Russell Doescher, along with English professor Marilyn Olson believe Munch witnessed the aftermath of a once in a lifetime event.

Earlier that year in May, halfway around the world on the island of Krakatoa, off the coast of Indonesia, a volcano began to vent from the pressure built up inside, resulting in activity on and off again for the next three months.  Finally, over a period of a couple of days in late August of 1883, two-thirds of the island were blown apart by the massive volcanic explosions, which were heard as far away as Australia.  The extreme force actually burst the eardrums of some nearby sailors, and the ash plume was reported to have risen as high as over 15 miles into the atmosphere.  The death toll was massive in the surrounding areas, due to the explosions as well as the resulting tsunamis.

The global aftereffects would last for many years.  Temperatures were colder than normal and by November, reports surfaced from New York, Norway, and much of the Northern Hemisphere regarding the magnificent, even spooky at times, sunsets.  The descriptions ranged from “blood-red”, to “alive with color” to “the sky is on fire”.  Many artists were inclined to paint the phenomenon happening daily around them.  Some art scholars have been quick to say that Munch did not paint this event, however, Munch himself recollected that it was an image he would never forget, saying it even drove him mad trying to record it in paint.  Did he or didn’t he paint the sky from life?  Did he ever even know of the Krakatoa eruption?  Munch wrote that he tried feverishly for years to paint his recollection of the evening stroll with his friends, which may explain why there are at least four versions of it and why they were painted so quickly that some of the cardboard even shows through the paint.

The final difference that makes “The Scream” stand out from the rest of  the images of ‘The Frieze’, is its popularity.  “The Scream” has been transformed into one of the most iconic images in the world.  It has appeared on nearly everything, from magazine covers and magnets to key chains, posters, and greeting cards, etc.  Even full-sized Halloween masks are replicas of the central figure in the painting.  What makes this painting so popular?  Do people connect with the artist or the image?  Do they feel the despair and confusion that leaps out of the blood red sky?  One thing is for certain, this most likely was an incidence of art imitating life.

Footnote:  While researching Edvard Munch and “The Scream”, I literally stumbled upon a book by Edward Dolnick titled, “The Rescue Artist” (copyright 2005, Harper Collins).  I was aware of course of “The Scream” and Munch, but this book enlightened me even more about the two subjects.  It is here that I found out how Munch came to paint “The Scream”, which led to even further research on that issue alone.  The book is a true story about the 1994 theft of the actual painting from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.  If you enjoy reading about art, history, and cops and robbers, I think you will enjoy reading “The Rescue Artist“.

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