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Edvard Munch's The Scream - The Mona Lisa Of Our Time

  • Edvard Munch - The Scream detail
December 2, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

One of the most iconic masterpieces of the 20th century is undoubtedly The Scream by Edvard Munch. This powerful and ghoulish Expressionist painting is not only a proof of the artist’s masterfulness, but it is also a visualization of a precise philosophical standpoint and moreover a reflection of socio-political circumstances of the period in which it was produced on the global scale.

The Scream is the title of multiple versions of a composition Munch made in a period between 1893 and 1910. The second title used for the series is The Cry. This particular motif haunted Munch so it is present in some of his other works such as Despair from 1894 and Madonna which was produced during the same time. In 1895, the artist did a lithograph stone from which several prints survived, and only four were made before the original stone was resurfaced by the printer in Munch’s absence. Two painted versions of The Scream belong to The National Gallery in Oslo, while the other painted version and also a pastel version from 1893 are located at The Munch Museum.

This agonizing representation of human suffering became increasingly popular since it was stolen several times, auctioned for outrageous sums and appropriated by popular culture severely. Therefore, it gained a status of an easy-to-recognize artwork best described by the statement of a journalist Arthur Lubow who said that “The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time”.

Left Edvard Munch - Despair Right Edvard Munch - Madonna
Left: Edvard Munch – Despair, 1894. Oil on canvas / Right: Edvard Munch – Madonna. Color lithograph from Ohara Museum of Art. 1895–1902. 60.5 cm × 44.4 cm (23.8 in × 17.5 in).

The Narrative Behind The Edvard Munch Scream

This Edvard Munch painting is centered on a desperate figure in a state of panic set against a colorful landscape. It can be said that it is an allegory of individual suffering, a difficult existential state in which a human found itself at the turn of the centuries. That is related to a global social turn and process of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Munch describe what triggered him to paint this chiseling scene:

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

There were interpretations of the reddish sky dominating in the background which suggested this was Munch’s impression of the sunset skies as the effect of the powerful volcanic eruption of Krakatoa back in 1883. The scholars proposed that the chances are that the nearby slaughterhouse and a lunatic asylum to the site are more likely to inspire the artist. The scene was identified as the view from a road overlooking Oslo. At the time of painting the work, Munch’s manic depressive sister Laura Catherine was a patient at the asylum.

In 1978, the Munch scholar Robert Rosenblum argued that the creature in the foreground of the painting was inspired by a Peruvian mummy, which Munch could have seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Thirty years later, a speculation of an Italian archeologist that Munch perhaps saw a mummy in Florence’s Museum of Natural History appeared. That was later dismissed, while Rosenblum’s suggestion was accepted since Munch did not travel to Florence until after painting The Scream.

A short video explaining Edvard Munch The Scream phenomenon

The Thefts and Market Value

In early 1994, two men broke into the National Gallery in Oslo, stole The Scream, and left a note reading “Thanks for the poor security”. The painting was moved to a second-story gallery; the management refused to pay a ransom, so the Norwegian police managed the operation with assistance from the British police and the Getty Museum and the painting was returned undamaged.

Ten years later, at The Munch Museum in Oslo, the 1910 version of The Scream was stolen by masked gunmen along with Munch’s Madonna. Luckily, their escape was photographed by a bystander; in 2005, the Norwegian police arrested a suspect in connection to the theft, but the paintings were not found and it was speculated that they were burned by the thieves to destroy evidence. A few months, later the city government of Oslo offered a reward for any information about the paintings. Six men were convicted in 2006 for their involvement with the robbery, and finally, in August of the same year, the Norwegian police announced that both The Scream and Madonna were located and returned.

The Munch Scream pastel on board from 1895 which was previously possessed by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, was sold at Sotheby’s in London for a record price of nearly $120 million at auction in 2012. They stated that this one is the most colorful of the four versions painted by Munch and the only version with hand-painted frame and the artist’s poem.

Left Edvard Munch - The Scream painting Right Edvard Munch - The Scream pastel
Left: Edvard Munch – The Scream, 1893. Oil, tempera & pastel on cardboard. Image creative commons / Right: Edvard Munch – The Scream, 1895. Pastel on board. Image creative commons

The Iconic Status of The Scream

In the late 20th century popular culture the image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream was parodied, imitated and reproduced in different media. In visual arts, perhaps the best-known appropriation of The Scream is Andy Warhol’s 1983-84 series of silk prints aimed to desacralize the masterpiece and make it a mass-reproducible object. On the other hand, two paintings such as The Second Scream from 1967 and Ding Dong from 1979 by Erro feature the work as well.

The tribute to The Scream is also present in the Wiener Dog Art painting and cartoon compilation of a cartoonist Gary Larson. You can also find it in The Simpsons, films, and on television. Notable homage to the painting is also present in the expression of Macaulay Culkin on the poster for the movie Home Alone. Munch’s The Scream also became a base for the imagery of the 1990s The Scream horror movie, resulting in The Ghostface mask becoming a typical Halloween costume.

The importance of the painting as a national treasure was confirmed in 2013 when one of four paintings was printed on the Norwegian postal service stamps marking the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth.

Since it clearly depicts a human figure in distorted state of mind or physical pain, the simplified version of The Scream was used by a patient resource group for trigeminal neuralgia (which has been described as the most painful condition in existence), as well as by the US Department of Energy as a symbol of danger in order to warn future human civilizations of the presence of radioactive waste.

After all stated above, clearly, Edvard Munch created The Scream without any particular intention to make such a powerful and memorable image which encapsulates the existential crises of humanity back then. What is striking is the fact that this masterpiece responds quite well with contemporaneity which is definitely contaminated with various social, political and environmental issues on the global scale.

work life red home art work 1893 red death nature Editors’ Tip: Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream

Although almost everyone recognizes Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, hardly anyone knows much about the man. What kind of person could have created this universal image, one that so vividly expressed all the uncertainties of the twentieth century? What kind of experiences did he have? In this book, the first comprehensive biography of Edvard Munch in English, Sue Prideaux brings the artist fully to life. Combining a scholar’s precision with a novelist’s insight, she explores the events of his turbulent life and unerringly places his experiences in their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual contexts.

Featured image: Edvard Munch – The Scream, 1893. Oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, 91 cm × 73.5 cm (36 in × 28.9 in). National Gallery and Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway. Image via Wikimedia Commons.