“I walked along the road with two friends,” wrote Edvard Munch. “Suddenly the sky became blood … I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.”
His “The Scream” is one of the most famous images in the world. You could argue that it’s too famous for its own good. Like the Mona Lisa, the picture’s so familiar that it’s virtually impossible to respond to it freshly.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both Da Vinci’s masterpiece and Munch’s have been the subject of sensational thefts. Indeed, two different versions of “The Scream” have been stolen from separate museums in Oslo on different occasions (one from the Norwegian National Gallery in 1994 and another from the Munch Museum in 2004, both eventually recovered).
“The Scream” has been parodied and appropriated in a multiplicity of ways, including an Andy Warhol silkscreen, a Gary Larson cartoon featuring a shrieking dachshund and an advertisement for chocolates. Of these, perhaps Homer Simpson’s Scream is the most preposterously memorable. Munch himself produced it in five different forms: two paintings, two pastels (one of which is the work to be auctioned) and a lithograph.
The result of all this proliferation is that one can hardly see the Scream for the jokes. Its original power lies partly in its simplicity: All of Munch’s versions -- though differing slightly in media, color and composition -- are so pared down as almost to be cartoons themselves. The image is compelling visual shorthand for a feeling experienced by virtually everyone at one time or another: frantic anxiety and desperation.
There is piquancy in the fact that a large portion of the world’s most celebrated art was made by two young men on the verge of mental collapse in the late 19th century. The life of Munch (1863-1944) ran parallel for a while with that of Van Gogh (1853-1890). Artistically, they were almost exact contemporaries.
Van Gogh was a decade older, but he was a late starter. Both he and Munch started out as artists around 1880, and each suffered mental crises later on. Out of that extremity came “Starry Night,” “Sunflowers” and “The Scream.” The sexless, schematic figure in Munch’s picture -- hearing, not emitting the shriek -- is perhaps the artist himself, as that text suggests. His drawings and paintings, decades later, of his balding octogenarian self have a similar, though less anguished, look.
“The Scream” is obviously autobiographical. Indeed, almost reportage. There were reports of agonizing sound in the district of Oslo where Munch heard the scream. Munch’s sister Laura was incarcerated in a mental hospital nearby. The cries of the patients there were said to mingle horribly with the noise of animals being slaughtered in a nearby abattoir.
Munch survived his breakdowns, Van Gogh didn’t. There’s another difference. Few would dispute that Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists who ever lived, while Munch’s reputation isn’t so clearly established. Some would argue -- I am not one of them -- that he is overrated. His later work, much of which is in the Munch Museum, is little known and under-appreciated.
He produced several works as strong as “The Scream,” and many more substantial than the third version of it that’s going under the hammer. The pastel probably will sell for a vast price, yet it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that whoever gets it will be buying not so much a small drawing, but fame itself.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and lifestyle section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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