On a recent trip to Oslo, I visited the 150 year anniversary exhibition of the work of Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch. The exhibition, spread across two of the city’s galleries – the National Gallery and the Munch Museum – is the biggest ever retrospective of the artist’s work. One of four versions of Munch’s world-famous ‘The Scream’ was sold last year at Sotheby’s New York for record $120m. With 250 pictures on display this summer in Oslo, I was brought to think about the painting, and question how one work might become the focus of so much attention while the rest of the artist’s prolific oeuvre remains relatively unfamiliar.
A painting often misunderstood, The Scream was created as part of a large series which Munch named the Frieze of Life, exploring ideas of love, anxiety and death. This painting, believe it or not, was the final work from the first in the list. It represents despair, which the troubled and morbid Munch believed to be the ultimate outcome of love.
Munch suffered terribly from a life illness and loss that began with the death of both his mother and sister from Tuberculosis during his youth. He was the victim of almost constant mental instability, that clearly fuelled his work as an artist. He wrote of the experience in Oslo that led to the creation of The Scream:
I went along the road with two friends—
The sun set
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness
I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord dripped reeking with blood
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound
in my breast I heard a huge extraordinary
scream pass through nature.
The title and imagery of the painting would lead most to believe that its representation focuses on the open mouthed figure (perhaps we thought it was the artist himself shrieking, or a figurative image of the suffering human soul). It is therefore interesting to consider that the eponymous ‘scream’ is not a human one, but instead refers to Munch’s dark psychological experience of the surrounding nature.
The work is powerful and eye -catching because of the sheer terror evoked by its bald, androgynous and ghost-like protagonist, surrounded by vivid blues and bloody reds. It has perhaps become so famous because it is such a memorable simple yet horrifying depiction. It conveys universally recognised emotion; the image of the ghoulish face has become globally iconic.
Despite a $120m price tag for a pastel version, I can confidently say that the scream is far from being the my favourite of Munch’s paintings. Other, equally melancholy works boldly portray scenes of death, love and the suffering of specific emotions. Thoughtful portraits paint sensitive images of Munch’s acquaintances, whilst group scenes subtly yet powerfully hint on themes of exclusion and loneliness.
But not everything is centred around such dark ideas. My particular favourites of Munch’s works are his depictions of nature, which are detached from his personal suffering and instead illustrate a strong relationship between the artist and the extraordinary Norwegian landscape. His images of moonlight over the fjords embody a strikingly beautiful tranquility, whilst scenes of forests and snow coated paths create boldly atmospheric depictions of the scandinavian surroundings.
A days spent looking at 250 works by Munch may not be the best idea if you are searching for a positive outlook on human existence, but it helped me to discover the great extent of the artist’s works, a powerful painter of both death and love, of the horrifying and the beautiful.