Edvard Munch’s Scream isn’t screaming, but rather hearing a scream

by  Telegraph edited by O Society Mar 22, 2019

Look at Edvard Munch’s Scream and what do you see? According to the British Museum, you may have it all wrong.

Many people believe it shows a man screaming. Not so, says the museum, which is about to display a black and white print of the image.

“This rare version of the Scream we’re displaying at the British Museum makes clear Munch’s most famous artwork depicts a person hearing a ‘scream’ and not, as many people continue to assume and debate, a person screaming,” said Giulia Bartrum, curator of a forthcoming exhibition devoted to the Norwegian artist.

The lithograph, unlike the coloured works, features an inscription by Munch. It reads:

“I felt the great scream throughout nature.”

It is a reference to his inspiration for the painting. Munch was walking by a fjord overlooking Oslo in 1892 when the sky turned blood red, a sight that had a profound effect upon him.

“Munch very deliberately included the caption on this version to describe how his inspiration came from the anxiety he suddenly felt.

“He was trying to capture an emotion or moment in time. Through the inscription we know how he felt. People think this is a screaming person but that’s not what is going on.

Gallery technicians install the lithograph
Gallery technicians install the lithograph CREDIT: KIRSTY O’CONNOR/PA WIRE

“It is a man hearing, whether in his head or not. He feels the sensation of nature screaming all around him.

“I have no doubt that this iconic figure is reacting to nature’s external forces on that hillside. What can still be debated is whether, for Munch, those forces were real or psychological.”

The issue of whether the figure is screaming or listening has been alive for decades. The former director of the Munch Museum in Oslo, Gunnar Soerensen, has said: “It could be a scream in nature or a person screaming. It is a question of interpretation.”

Munch's note
Munch’s note: ‘I felt the great scream throughout nature’ CREDIT: KIRSTY O’CONNOR/PA WIRE


But Mr Soerensen’s successor, Stein Olav Henrichsen, said the British Museum has it right. “There are lots of comments on this work, but we have Munch’s own words and this is someone covering their ears as they hear nature screaming.

“But we do not mind at all if people interpret it in different ways. During the Cold War, Time magazine put the Scream on the front page as a comment on the era and the atomic bomb.

“We have heard that some English people are using it for Brexit. People can interpret and enjoy art in different ways,” he told theTelegraph.

Edvard Munch's Scream
The colour versions of the painting are the most well-known CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Edvard Munch: love and angst, which runs at the British Museum from April 11 – July 21, will be the largest exhibition of the artist’s prints in the UK for 45 years. It includes nearly 50 loans from the Munch Museum.

The Scream is the highlight – the black and white print was disseminated widely in Munch’s lifetime and made him famous. The monochrome treatment emphasises the wavy lines in the sky that “give the sensation of a tuning fork resonating around the figure”, Ms Bartrum said. “When you look at it, you can almost hear a sound.”

The Scream is one of the most recognisable artworks in the world because it has “a simplicity and an immediate impact for everybody, wherever you come from,” she added.

Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art, the Mona Lisa for our time. As Da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age – wracked with anxiety and uncertainty.

Essentially The Scream is autobiographical, an expressionistic construction based on Munch’s actual experience of a scream piercing through nature while on a walk, after his two companions, seen in the background, had left him. Fitting the fact that the sound must have been heard at a time when his mind was in an abnormal state, Munch renders it in a style which if pushed to extremes can destroy human integrity.

As previously noted, the flowing curves of art nouveau represent a subjective linear fusion imposed upon nature, whereby the multiplicity of particulars is unified into a totality of organic suggestion with feminine overtones. But man is part of nature, and absorption into such a totality liquidates the individual. Beginning at this time Munch included art nouveau elements in many pictures but usually only in a limited or modified way.

Here, however, in depicting his own morbid experience, he has let go, and allowed the foreground figure to become distorted by the subjectivized flow of nature; the scream could be interpreted as expressing the agony of the obliteration of human personality by this unifying force. Significantly, although it was Munch himself who underwent the experience depicted, the protagonist bears no resemblance to him or anyone else.

The creature in the foreground has been depersonalized and crushed into sexlessness or, if anything, stamped with a trace of the femininity of the world that has come close to assimilating it.

Several facts indicate Munch was aware of the danger of an art of this sort for a neurotic humanist like himself. He soon abandoned the style and rarely if ever again subjected a foreground figure to this kind of radical and systematic distortion.

At the top of another version of the subject (National Gallery, Oslo) he wrote: ‘Can only have been painted by a madman.‘ He certainly had a horror of insanity, which afflicted his sister Laura.

Within the picture, he set up a defense, in the form of the plunging perspective of the roadway and its fence, which preserves a rational world of three dimensions, holding at bay the swell of art nouveau curves. Safe in this rational world, the two men in the distance remain unequivocally masculine. In the foreground unified nature has come close to crossing the fence, close enough to distort the form and personality of the protagonist. But the fence still protects it from total absorption into subjective madness.

The Scream has been the target of several high-profile art thefts. In 1994, the version in the National Gallery was stolen. It was recovered several months later.

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