Munch’s The Scream

If you are reading this blog, then you’ve seen my work. This means that it probably comes as no great surprise that I am a fan of Munch’s the Scream. As one of his pastel-on-board versions comes up for auction, expected to make something in the region of £50m, the BBC have written an article about it and anguish in art.

Now there are some parts of this article that I can agree with. Certainly the image is hugely popular and influential – the ease of its parody is a testament to its cultural resonance, but it seems that the chief art critic of The Times has taken a rather dismissive stance on both The Scream and ‘dark’ art in general by confusing popularity with simplicity and immaturity.

There is no doubt that The Scream has an obvious, direct message and that its imagery is basic, but to consider it immature is to miss the depth of the emotion on display. Yes, the image contains blood red skies and a figure screaming in exaggerated, pantomime style, but for me this is the smallest part of the scream that is described.

More disturbing to me than the howling, simplistic figure are the expressionist marks themselves, dividing a chaotic, almost sickeningly uneven sky and sea from a jarring, angular bridge which itself seems to lean at an unpleasant angle, as though threatening to pitch the viewer forward into the mad landscape. In these angles and their contrast, there is a sensation of the world losing its meaning, transforming familiar views into strange, un-navigable terrain.

Most of all, I feel the scream in the painting’s other figures. The single man or couple who rest at the back of the image (depending on the version you are viewing), stand too far away from the main figure to provide comfort or company and seem completely unaware of the extent of its pain. Their presence demonstrates the main figure’s isolation in a way that could not have been achieved by simply having that figure stand alone in the painting.

Much’s The Scream does not describe some infantile cry for attention and help, but a far deeper despair. For me the screaming figure has always been silent, its horror made greater by the inability to make others understand its anguish.

So I think people should dig a little deeper into the scream, to feel the extent of the emotion it portrays and how it does it. Perhaps we can look back and feel that the despairs of our childhood and teenage years were the result of immature fears and losses, but as adults when we feel the bone crushing weight of loss, the sickening sensation of the world whirling past us and the gulf between the internal emotion and the ability to express it, I say that the pain is no less real than when as children we reached out for comfort and found none.

I believe that we are drawn to art that conveys anguish and suffering because in some measure it conveys a pain that we cannot fully express to each other. There are indefinable qualities in the marks and composition of Munch’s mad sky and twisted figure that tell the viewer that the artist understands the pain that we too have felt and in that shared understanding of loss and despair, we can find some solace.

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