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Cellars. Offer below, details at the end Under a blood-red sky a terrifying figure
with a skull-like face is staring out at us. And it appears to be screaming in anguish.
Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, one of the most famous images in the history of art has become for
us, a universal symbol of angst and anxiety. Europe was at the birth of the
modern era when he painted Ths Scream and the image reflects the intense anxieties
that troubled the world at this time. Anxieties which Edvard Munch himself found overwhelming.
The figure is in fact, not screaming at all. Rather it is holding its hands over
its ears to block out the scream. Between 1863 when Munch was born and
the years before the first world war European cities were going through truly
exceptional changes. Industrialisation and economic shifts brought fear, obsessions, diseases, political
unrest and radicalism. Questions were being raised about society and the changing role of man within
it. About our psyche, our social responsibilities, and most radical of all – about the existence of God.
The rich were getting richer, but in Christiania (now Oslo) living and working conditions were as
bad as ever, a major cause of death and disease. Munch himself would endure a life ravaged
by madness, sickness and death. His mother and his sister both died of Tuberculosis. His
father and grandfather suffered from depression, and another sister Laura from Schizophrenia.
His only brother would later die of pneumonia. Always a sickly child himself, Munch turned to
drawing to keep himself occupied in his sick bed. When he later decided to become an artist his
father, a fundamental Christian, gave him no support as he considered the profession “unholy”. He told
his son that the death of his mother and sister was “divine punishment” for their sins and his
traumatic childhood never left him as an adult. This would have a lasting effect on Munch’s work. His early paintings were grounded in realism, but
in 1884 he joined Christiania’s bohemian circle, which was led by the anarchist writer Hans Jæger.
Jæger encouraged Munch to reject religion, break with bourgeois principles and morals, and move
away from realism to paint his own emotional and psychological state. A powerful painting
dating from this period drew on the death of his sister and mother. It is hard now to imagine
the outrage it caused but the bourgeois Norwegians despised the rough brushstrokes, scratched
surface and the deep melancholy of the piece. The painting and the ensuing scandal
would set the tone for his future work. Munch was looking outside of provincial
Christiania, and on a short trip to Paris in 1885, he had the chance to see the
revolutionary work of the Impressionists. Their use of colour and form was a revelation
for the young artist. Munch was always loathe to admit that he was influenced by any artists,
but here we can compare Monet’s solitary figure lost in thought, with Munch’s own later composition
whereas Monet’s paintings are a study of light on the exterior, Munch is exploring the interior life,
and already shows a preoccupation with loneliness and angst. The years in Paris were his experimental
years when Munch was finding his style, and in 1889 he returned to Paris to study for three years. The Eiffel tower had just been completed, the post-impressionists were becoming established, and
Vincent van Gogh had just painted “The Starry Night”. Van Gogh’s expressive and emotional brushwork
deeply influenced Munch as did his use of colour. Munch understood that van Gogh’s posthumous fame
was thanks to a combination of his paintings and his tragic personal story, and later Munch was
not averse to marketing himself as a mad genius, which he understood would play
an important role in his art. Mostly he was fascinated by Paul Gauguin and
the symbolists, whose ideas he would expand on. Gauguin’s use of heavy outline simplified
shapes and solid blocks of colour would influence Munch’s style. He would later
adopt the bold graphic outlines of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, whose posters
were on the streets of Paris when Munch arrived. The young artist was like a sponge, soaking up
painting styles, ideas, and motifs from different artists. Sometimes in a more obvious ways – and like
most artists of this period he experimented with “Pointillism”. What really interested him about the
post-impressionists was their rejection of realism in favor of absolute truth through their
own emotional experience and imagination. The unique thing about Munch was how he would take
these formal tools and ideas from French painting and then combine them with a northern
sensibility, more concerned with melancholy. In 1892, he was invited to Berlin where these
psychological insights would NOT be welcome. Munch was invited to put on a solo show in Berlin,
but the organisers had no first-hand experience of his work. Norwegian paintings of fjords were
very fashionable and they were expecting this. The Germans thought his work was too raw, too brutal,
and too unfinished. The show was so controversial that it would be shut down after a week. Munch
however, was delighted with the scandal, as his notoriety ensured he became an overnight sensation.
In Germany. In Berlin he was friends with the Swedish writer August Strindberg and, as so often
with Munch, it was literature he looked to for inspiration to explain universal human experiences.
We can see his work in this period as moving away from painting one image and more towards a series
of works, that can be viewed in literary terms. The masterful series he produced in the 1890s.
“The Frieze of Life” was intended to be seen as a poem of life, love and death. And it would be his
life’s major work. The series started with six but eventually grew to a total of 22 works – the scream
would be just one of them – The Impressionists had of course worked in series, but more as an
observation on light and atmospheric conditions. Whereas Munch was working this way to create a
total work of art (or in german a “Gesamtkunstwerk”) Munch split the works into four themes and when
we place them together as he would have, we can see he was trying to tell a “story”. Here we have
“The seeds of love”, “the passing of love”, “anxiety’ and “death”. Around this time Munch started to produce
multiple versions of many of his paintings. There was a practical reason behind it, his idea was to
keep the “Frieze of Life” together and eventually donate them as a whole to a museum in Oslo, when he
died. So when he sold a painting he then produced a copy to replace it, to avoid breaking up
the group. The more popular the painting the more copies there are in existence. On top
of this, he had a pathological hatred of parting with his paintings (which he called my children).
It was as if he couldn’t bear to part with his past. On the 22nd of January 1892, Munch
wrote in his diary “I was walking down the road with two friends, when the sun
set. Suddenly the sky turned as red as blood. My friends walked on, I stood there quaking
with angst and I felt as though a vast endless scream passed through nature”. What is debatable is
whether those screams were real or psychological. The idea of the figure in the landscape and
man’s relationship to nature, is something that Munch draws on from the romantic
tradition of the early 19th century. But The Scream focuses on the inner psychology of
man – in relation to nature. A painting he did just a year before the scream is a rather similar image,
but with a small crowd of ghostly figures staring out at us. The painting conveys urban alienation,
the feeling that you can be all alone in a crowd. And Munch’s figure in The Scream expresses similar
ideas about anxiety and alienation. The disturbing figures are a reoccurring theme for Munch and he
used the same setting to produce other paintings. This painting also has the same red and yellow
sky, mountains and fjords in the background, but instead of the skeletal figure staring
out at us there is a self-portrait of Munch. The composition itself is simple, we can divide the
painting into the bridge, the fjords and the sky. The main figure is curved and broadens out
to blend into the background. The two figures (his friends in the diary entry) are
vertical unlike the main figure. This with the sharp diagonals of the bridge,
anchor us in the real world. The background suggests the world is dissolving into
chaos and pre-figures abstract painting. The tiny figures are deep in conversation
and despite the chaos they are oblivious. Munch underlines their emotional distance from the
protagonist by placing them at a physical distance, walking away on an absolutely straight road.
The painting may look as if it is done quickly, but Munch would go through meticulous preparation.
Here we see the development of the lone figure as it goes from the far distance to the foreground. In his diary sketch, the violent red sky develops and written to the side is his description of
that walk with his friends. The self-portrait will give way to the figure we know. Note in
this sketch, one of the two background figures is not yet walking away. If we take the two figures
away completely the scene is not as claustrophobic, and it changes the atmosphere. Every element in the
painting is carefully planned – and even after all this planning Munch made last-minute changes, as
we see with this initial sketch on the reverse. This 1893 painting is probably his first version of
“The Scream”. It is mixed media – oil tempera and pastel.
This one, also dated 1893, is in pastel. Auctioneer: “107 billion dollars – sold!” The only one in private hands. And this is a later
copy from 1910 also tempers. All the paintings are done on unprimed cardboard. Munch often worked with
cheap material, first because he couldn’t afford canvas, and later because the texture suited his
aesthetic. They were often glued onto wooden boards as we can see here. A treatment no longer used.
He would use diluted paint, a technique he picked up from Toulouse-Lautrec, and he deliberately
left paintings unfinished as a sort of anti-art statement He wanted the cardboard to show through
the various diluted layers of pastels, to allow the process to show. At times he has violently
stabbed on paint with the back of his brush. He never varnished his work as he liked the matte
finish, insisting varnish “killed a painting dead”. Then he had something which he called “the horse
cure”. This was basically leaving his paintings outside in the garden, in all weathers to “fend for
themselves”. He thought his paintings should have an organic life and he wanted them to look aged. Here
we can see one of the many stains on the painting, where Munch – in this case – spilled some wax on it.
All of these add up to a nightmare for conservators. TV NEWS: “Two or three armed, masked men burst into the
Munch Museum in Oslo, in broad daylight and took the paintings, as visitors watched”.
One of the ironies about the scream is that when it was recovered after being stolen it was
quickly jumped upon by a small army of conservators. Munch however would have preferred they left
it damaged – as part of its ongoing life. I think it is interesting, to look at possible inspiration.
Scientists have linked the sky’s unnatural colours to volcanic dust from the eruption of Krakatoa in
1883, which generated incredible sunsets in Europe for months after. They have also linked it to a
phenomenon known as “Nacreous cloud formations”, common in Norway during winter, which is when Munch
painted The Scream. A possible inspiration for the figure, is this Peruvian mummy which Munch certainly
saw on display at the Paris world’s fair of 1889. The figure itself is featureless, ungendered and
de-individualized, and perhaps one of the reasons why despite being a deeply personal painting, it
has become a universal symbol of anxiety. It is a blank page into which you can project yourself, and
so it becomes about what we the viewer bring to it. The figure is looking right at us, which pins
us down “locking us” into the angst-ridden scene/ Barely visible on the painting,
is a pencil inscription stating “Could only have been painted by a madman”.
Infrared images show that it was Munch’s handwriting, and that it was written AFTER
the painting was first exhibited in 1895. Several important critics had questioned Munch’s
mental health, and it deeply hurt the artist who had a morbid fear of insanity. We can look
at the later added inscription as an angry ironic comment from Munch. Then there is another
inscription by Munch on an earlier lithograph. “I felt a huge scream through nature” confirming that
the figure is not screaming at all, but nature around him is. What is interesting, is why Munch
was in that location in the first place. The setting of “The Scream” came about
after the artist took a scenic walk, as described in his diary. The actual place
is called Ekberg which overlooks Oslo Fjord, with a view towards the setting sun during
the winter months. But as so often with Munch his strength is how he departs from reality.
He was not here for the scenery, but to visit his younger sister Laura, who had recently
been confined to an asylum near this spot. Munch’s father had just died, and after a lifetime
of abandonment, through death and disease, it is not too difficult to imagine the distress that he must
have experienced as he left his beloved sister behind. Her screams of terror must have haunted him
as he walked away. In a world of extreme and rapid change, combined with a life of desperate anxiety
and alienation, Munch, who would have a nervous breakdown in 1908, must have felt overwhelmed, as
if his life was unravelling. All of us in some way understand the desperate feeling Munch must have
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