Munch's The Scream... and the appeal of anguished art

The Scream in many guises

Edvard Munch's masterpiece The Scream is expected to fetch record sums at auction. Why are such agonised, visceral works of art so highly sought-after?

Under a swirling, blood-red sky, a lone figure on a bridge clasps its head in its hands and cries out in despair.

It's a tortured, chaotic portrait of hopelessness and anxiety - hardly the kind of sight you might expect to adorn countless mugs, calendars and posters in homes around the world.

And yet somehow The Scream, Edvard Munch's deeply personal channelling of his own tormented psyche, has become one of modern art's most familiar images - not to mention the target of several high-profile thefts.

Munch's most famous painting

  • Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863‑1944) made four versions of The Scream
  • Two have been stolen and later recovered - one in 1994, the other in 2004
  • Only privately owned version - pastel-on-board, dating from 1895 - will be auctioned in May
  • It represents "modern man's existential anxiety and despair", notes Oslo's Munch Museum
  • A troubled character - scarred and influenced by early deaths of his mother and sister - Munch suffered a serious breakdown in 1908-9
  • Munch himself sold Scream lithographs; today it adorns mugs and inflatable toys, protest placards and iPad covers

When his pastel-on-board version goes to auction in New York in May - he made four - it is expected to fetch £50m ($80m), making it one of the most expensive artworks in the world.

But while The Scream's fame is undeniable, its ubiquity and widespread popularity are, at least on the surface, more difficult to explain.

An icon of misery and desperation makes for an unlikely decorative addition to the typical living room wall, after all.

Nonetheless, given that endless reproductions have ensured that perhaps only the Mona Lisa is more instantly recognisable, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that the anguish depicted in The Scream is something that millions of people are drawn to seek out.

Of course, it is not only visual art that is capable of producing hugely popular representations of despondency.

Teenage girl listening to music Alone again, listening to sad music

Directors such as Ken Loach and David Cronenberg could never have forged lengthy careers if audiences favoured only joyful optimism and spurned bleak, depressing stories.

Nor would great works of literature like Shakespeare's Hamlet and Hardy's Jude the Obscure have proved so enduring.

The entire canon of popular music would be lost without desolation and anguish, a point made by Nick Hornby's narrator in his novel High Fidelity: "People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos... Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands - literally thousands - of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss."

And like a good pop song, The Scream is bright, vivid and instantly recognisable.

Munch exposed Scandinavia's dark, troubled soul long before The Killing, Steig Larson and Henning Mankell's Wallander grabbed the noir headlines.

His homeland, Norway, traumatised him. One day out walking, the sun went down and the sky "turned as red as blood". His companions walked on, leaving Munch alone with his vivid imagination. He was stuck, trembling with fear, feeling "as if all nature were filled with one mighty unending shriek".

The Scream immortalises the artist's moment of existential horror in an image that strikes terror into any viewer's heart. It reveals a harrowing truth of the human condition - we can never escape our inner anxiety, it is the price we pay for consciousness.

Munch was not blessed with a happy disposition - not entirely surprising given that he lost both his mother and sister to tuberculosis while still a boy. As an artist he was initially unable to fully express himself, until he visited Paris in the 1890s and was exposed to the work of the recently deceased Vincent van Gogh.

Soon he too was distorting images into gnarled shapes, in the Expressionistic style invented by the Dutch genius. A couple of years later he produced The Scream, an iconic image that was to influence purveyors of horror, from Alfred Hitchcock to Francis Bacon.

According to David Jackson, professor of Russian and Scandinavian art histories at the University of Leeds, these qualities allow people with little knowledge of Expressionist art to relate to what was, when it was first shown, an avant-garde work.

"It's quite cathartic," he says. "It speaks to everybody - we've all felt alone and despairing at some point in our lives.

"I think this compulsion to look at things that trouble us is a fundamental part of the human condition. If you go to WH Smiths or Waterstones you find all these books on sale about abused children. The whole myth and industry around Vincent van Gogh is based on the same thing."

Perhaps for this reason, The Scream's influence on modern art has been considerable, as seen in Francis Bacon's Screaming Popes series, Picasso's Guernica and, of course, Andy Warhol's silk prints of Munch's work.

Popular culture has embraced the iconography, from the mask in Wes Craven's Scream films to the Munch-inspired alien villains The Silence in Doctor Who.

Munch himself was the first to produce this image in bulk, creating four versions - two paintings and two pastels - between 1893 and 1910, as well as a lithograph.

But not all within the art world are pleased by its ubiquity.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times's chief art critic, is not a fan. The Scream's popularity, she believes, derives from a tendency to regard artforms prefixed with adjectives like "edgy", "dark" and "disturbing" as somehow superior to those which are light and joyful.

Cameraman with Francis Bacon's painting Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X The Scream influenced Bacon's Pope paintings

Indeed, she draws an analogy with a teenager listening to overwrought, depressing music in their bedroom, before learning as they grow older to appreciate a songwriter like Bob Dylan who deals with subtler, more complex emotions.

"The Scream is almost childish in its directness," she says. "That's why you see it in so many university halls of residence. What you get out of that painting is not something that deepens over time.

"It appeals to an immature taste. As you get older you want something different - art that transforms the everyday rather than goes to the extremes of human emotion."

What is not in doubt is that the emotions expressed by Munch in his series of Screams were entirely authentic. Haunted by suicidal thoughts and struggling with destitution and family tragedy, the despair portrayed in pastel and paint was the artist's own.

Art critics on The Scream

The Times' Rachel Campbell-Johnston says its paranoia can possess the viewer: "Munch was seeking to remember in paint a moment of his experience when, standing alone, he had seen the entire sky turn red around him, felt it gaping open like some great mouth screaming rivers of blood."

When another version was stolen in 1994, the Washington Post's Paul Richard explained why it transcends the parodies:

"Look at it again. That figure on the Oslo bridge - its boneless body curving, its mouth agape, its hands against its ears - still howls its silent howl.

"Is it man or woman, fleshed-out being or death's-head, alien or earthling, a grown-up or a kid? That one-size-fits-all image is all of the above. There are other silent screams in art - the horse's, for example, in Picasso's Guernica - but none has Munch's strange carry. It's our secret self-portrait. It is Edvard Munch's as well."

For Sue Prideaux, author of an award-winning biography of Munch, it is impossible to ignore the image's wider context - a widespread late-19th Century sense of unease as the works of Darwin and Nietzsche corroded the old faiths and centuries of previous generations.

It was Munch's ability to blend the deeply personal with the universal that has made his most celebrated work so enduring, she says.

"The feelings expressed in the painting were extremely subjective on Munch's part," she says. "But because this skull, essentially, has an everyman quality we can all project our feelings onto it."

There is evidence to suggest, however, that the widespread attachment to art that conveys feeling of despair and horror is more than simply an aesthetic preference.

Psychologist Dr Eugene McSorley, of the University of Reading, has carried out studies tracking people's eye movements when they are shown unpleasant images - famine victims, people with gunshot wounds, dead bodies.

Woman in front of Goya's The Third of May 1808, from his Disasters of War series Artists such as Goya depicted the disasters of war to devastating effect

"It seems very difficult for people to suppress or ignore these images," McSorley says. "They find it very hard not to move their eyes towards them.

Munch on The Scream

Frame of 1895 version includes this poem:

"I was walking along the road with two friends/the sun was setting - the sky turned a bloody red/And I felt a whiff of melancholy - I stood/still, deathly tired - over the blue-black/fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire/my friends walked on - I remained behind/ - shivering with anxiety - I felt the great scream in nature - EM"

"You could speculate that this gives you an evolutionary advantage to spot things which are going to hurt or kill you. Or you might argue that these basic emotions are easier to recognise and process than others that are more complex."

Such a conclusion is fuel for critics who bemoan The Scream's lack of subtlety - and also for fans who celebrate its cathartic universality.

Which ever camp you fall into, that wailing, skeletal figure's hold on the popular imagination remains impregnable.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    The image still means a lot to me as 15 years ago after a bad accident I carried this picture round in my purse during a lengthy recovery.
    The Scream was just how I felt but couldnt say. It helped me a great deal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    I think Rachel Campbell-Johnston is right. Expressionist paintings usually lack subtlety and this is their great weakness. They tend to condescend and leave nothing to the imagination. There is no need to think. The emotions are too underlined and this makes it difficult for anyone to see anything other than the primary emotion the artist is dealing with. That is why it lacks depth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I first saw the Scream at age 11 and it has stayed with me since. It has always spoken to me and I can't say exactly why - the swirling colour, the figure in some sort of pain or anguish despite not being alone... I've always seen it as the figure trying to block the world out. He's had enough and the world is spinning around him, just swirls and noise and pain and suffering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    "It appeals to an immature taste..." I'm sorry Rachel Campbell-Johnston should feel this. I believe art can reflect everything in human experience. The pain of childhood and youth are in no way less than those of the "mature"... for me, The Scream expresses both the deeply personal and humanity's condition. Does someone doubt this? Anyone perceiving it IS transformed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Munch may have been in a state of despair, pain and hopelessness at the time, but for me, the image has always been about existential angst - the unbearable pressure of inescapable reality on one's senses. And that unswitchoffableness in turn is present at every moment in our lives, in times of joy as well as pain and hopelessness.

    So for me, it's not actually dark and hopeless.


Comments 5 of 8



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