LOCATION: New York | EXHIBITION: Edvard Munch: The Scream at MoMA
“In my art I have tried to explain to myself life and its meaning. I have also tried to help others to clarify their lives.” – Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch – I have always found his art at once liberating and shocking! Liberating because it expresses the emotions that are tucked away by most, and shocking because of the sheer gnawing pure truthfulness of it. It’s almost like clearing a foggy mirror to reveal a reflection. His style, free from the shackles of belonging to any one particular art movement (drawing ideas from impressionism to post-impressionism), is an attempt at building an image of truth, in its bare form. In my mind, the name conjures up images of deep soulful emotions, deep philosophical musings on self-confessions and assertions of deep, very deep thoughts, otherwise unsaid. The unmasked psychological themes that he presented through his works had an intense impact on my views of art as a form of expression, when I first began exploring visual arts; and the impact continues to this day.
I always look at his works with ecstasy; the longer my eyes rove over his art, the more I begin to feel his vibes of love, vehement grief, and passion transmitted through each brush stroke, each line – as though I am peeling away layer after layer of a secret. In his search for the “secret of life”, Munch painted. Inimitable psychological intensity consumed him as he painted on themes of love, angst, and death – grouped and later exhibited as ‘Frieze of Life – A Poem about Life, Love and Death’. Circling from the obsessive, all-consuming, passionate to the utterly painful, these artworks have the ability to draw the viewer into a melancholic rhapsody.
Truly, what better words can be used to describe his painting ‘Ashes’ (right), of which he wrote in his diary: “I stooped and sat down … I felt as though our love … lay there on the hard stones… I felt that our love lay on the ground like a heap of ashes.”
While reflecting upon his painting titled ‘Attraction’ (above), I almost get a feeling of a man falling in innocent love quite like a young adolescent would, enraptured by his lover’s presence, going further in a trance-like yet, quiet delirium. Works like ‘Jealousy’ portraying (presumably) his poet friend Stainislaw Przybyszewski’s blank eyes “full of hate and love,” and ‘The Lonely Ones’ which shows lack of frontal interaction between the figures and the exasperated body language of the male figure, mirror essential range of feelings programmed in humans from the time of birth.
Of all his works, Munch’s iconic painting ‘Der Schrei der Natur’ (The Scream of Nature) seized public imagination. Popularly known as ‘The Scream’, it epitomized elementary emotions. Really, the only one who would know what Munch was thinking when he painted this wildly popular iconic artwork would be the central figure of the artwork. I propose this is what the figure would have to say in [the hypothetical situation of] a conversation:
“Why did he make me look like this, I used to wonder. I used to wonder why did he strip my facade of cool exterior down to what I was really feeling – the sheer anxiety, the absolute nervousness and helplessness that had built up to such epic proportions that all that was going on inside my mind was a silent white scream – an echo of the silent white scream in the atmosphere around me. Long endless soundless scream. My nerves were pounding and it created such heat in my body that I thought I would melt! I later knew why. He peeled off my exterior to show the world what I really am – an abstraction of life. The sense of entrapment I was feeling had been depicted in part in the painting ‘Despair’ which had a similar setting, of the recurrent bridge in Oslo, but I was different. I had more of his desolate emotions.
Edvard didn’t stop at just dissecting me – do you see that sky? That blood red, red sky? Doesn’t the strong color and the serpentine slow curves add to the feeling of it looking like slow volcanic lava gradually making its way, burning off anything that dares to come in its way? And just when this dynamic composition was about to burst, he added the blue water with an impression of boats and buildings in the distance. The swirls made it look like everything was in motion, and the railing running behind me cutting the board like a train whooshing by, amplified the motion to the point of giddiness.
I was feeling isolated inspite of the two figures in the background. He showed my detachment through my dull colors amidst the brightness of the red and blue. You see, I was feeling confused, a tragic sense of life had engulfed me. Why was I so anxious, you ask? Let me put it simply – it was a feeling of anxiety largely caused by modern life. This is what he once said about me, “For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.” I suffered from agoraphobia, so did Edvard. My emotional agitation had reached loud bell-ringing crescendo… I am not a slice of external reality, but a depiction of tense emotions that pulse through the everyone’s veins as a result of external (modern) realities of the time – unsurprisingly, largely relevant even to date. I am you, you are me – every once in a while.”
That day in 1895, when Munch picked up the pastels to make this version of the painting, he wouldn’t have imagined that it would be Leon Black’s most expensive art purchase at the Sotheby’s auction in March 2012. Painted with the brightest colors, this second of the four versions of ‘The Scream‘ has a poem inscribed on the frame. It goes like this:
“I was walking along the road with two friends / the sun was setting – The sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a whiff of melancholy – I stood / Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black / Fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire / My friends walked on – I remained behind / – shivering with anxiety – I felt the great scream in Nature – EM.”
You see, understanding the roots of Edvard Munch’s complex nature is the starting point of understanding his art. Munch grew up with stories of demons and angels read to him and his siblings by his father, which manifested themselves as reality in his mind. Young Munch would often be distressed with nightmares, causing him further nervous anxiety. In his words – “My father [Christian Munch] was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” Munch was profoundly influenced by Hans Jæger’s bohemian and unorthodox thoughts on life, sexual behavior and existence. He started filling out pages of the ‘Soul’s diary,’ in which he documented his innermost thoughts, he wanted to construct visions of truth underscored by his personal experiences.
Munch experimented with impressionism during the journey to find his individual artistic style. However, the impressionistic brush strokes did not satisfy his artistic yearning. While Post-Impressionism had stylistic influence on him, the subject matter turned largely personal and symbolic. His style ultimately pivoted on simpler lines, sharp contrasts and bolder invasions of his mind for a long time, laying the base for modern Expressionism.
Speaking about ‘The Scream’ which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture notes, “The startling power of Munch’s original work endures almost despite the image’s present-day ubiquity. The visual subtlety and complexity of this composition can’t be summed up in a cliché.”
‘The Scream’ is rightfully a masterpiece, a voice, a personified emotion.
“Edvard Munch: The Scream” is currently on view through April 29,2012 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1894. Oil on canvas. 120.5 x 141 cm. National Gallery, Oslo
1892. Oil on canvas. 92.0 x 72.5 cm. The Munch Museum, Oslo
Eye in Eye
1894. Oil on canvas. 136 x 110 cm. The Munch Museum, Oslo
1895. Oil on canvas. 67 x 100 cm. Rasmus Meyer Collection, Bergen, Norway
The Lonely Ones
1935. Oil on canvas. 100 x 130 cm. The Munch Museum, Oslo
1895. Pastel on board. © 2012 The Munch Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York