Sunday, February 10, 2013

Munch's Madness

A couple of weeks ago, I went to New York City to see three exhibitions: The Art of Scent at the Museum of Art and Design, and Inventing Abstraction and The Scream at the Museum of Modern Art. So today, I figured I’d talk about my favorite Munch. Surprise, surprise, it’s The Scream. Just not exactly the Scream that I saw.

The Scream I saw                               vs.                               The Scream I chose

We all know The Scream. It’s iconic. Andy Warhol did a series of silkscreens reproducing it along with other Munch works, The Simpsons parodied it, and the ubiquitous scream mask featured in the Scream movies and sold in just about every store around Halloween is based on it. They even sell screaming Scream pillows on the internet (I have one). And now, until April 29, you can see The Scream at MoMA up close and personal (ignoring the plexiglas barrier and the throngs of people).

What you'll see at MoMA

But one thing most of us don’t know is that there are four versions of The Scream. And that’s not counting the lithograph or the Munch works that have eerily similar subjects or compositions. The four works I’m talking about are so similar that, except for differences in media, they’re nearly identical. The version at MoMA is Munch’s pastel Scream from 1895. But like I said, that one’s not my favorite. My favorite is the 1893 tempera and crayon version. I’ll tell you why and talk about all of the versions a little later. First, I want to cover what they have in common.

The Scream lithograph and other similar Munch works (Despair 1892, Despair 1894, and Anxiety)

The Scream (the hypothetical conglomerate of all the versions) was originally titled Der Schrei der Natur, or The Scream of Nature, and is one (four) of the most emotionally powerful works of art out there. It’s set in Ekeburg, Norway looking out onto the Oslofjord and the cityscape of Oslo, and, if we take Munch’s diary entries at face value, it’s based on an actual experience.

I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.

But that’s where the resemblance to the real world stops and distortion begins. Some art historians think that Munch may have based The Scream’s sky on vibrant ash-induced sunsets after the Krakatau eruption in 1883 and the central figure on a mummy he may have seen. But I think that’s all silly speculation and doesn’t really matter one way or the other. Munch was a symbolist master and a precursor of the expressionist movement. He was using distorted, simplified forms, shallow, stage-like compositions, and “arbitrary” color (like van Gogh) to convey an emotional experience. He wasn’t going for realism. He painted a pasty, hairless, skull-faced man with no spine wearing a shapeless robe for God’s sake!

And Munch had plenty of emotion to work from. In addition to the typical fin de siècle anxieties, his mother and sister died when he was young, his father was a weirdo, and Munch himself was prone to excessive drunken “brawling.” Not far from the setting of The Scream, there was also a mental institution where another sister was locked up and a slaughterhouse that was said to be pretty hellish. Oh, and apparently the area was fairly popular for suicide.

The little known fact that The Scream was originally conceived as part of Munch’s Frieze of Life series shows just how mucked up Munch’s perceptions were. The series was made up of themes of love, angst, and death. The Scream was the culminating work in love. Munch believed that the ultimate outcome of love was despair.

Now back to the different versions. Munch supposedly made multiples because he found it hard to part with his work. We don’t know which one came first. It was either my favorite (the tempera and crayon version) or the Munch Museum’s crayon only Scream. Both were done in 1893. I’m going to guess that it might have been the crayon only one though, since it’s rougher and more washed out. Like a preliminary sketch. But I’m probably wrong.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, crayon on cardboard, 74 x 56 cm.

My favorite Scream is in Norway’s National Gallery, so I probably won’t be able to see it in person any time soon. But I managed to get my hands on a relatively large digital image, and just that takes my breath away. As a whole, the National Gallery’s version is the most put together. When you look close though, you can see how a mess of separate brushstrokes, washes, and lines work together to create the whole. I love how casual and irreverent each mark is. Even the white spatters in the lower right corner that look like bird poop are fantastic. I also think the figures in the background of this version are the best. Their tall, upright bodies and nearly invisible heads make them seem ghostly and mysterious.

The Scream currently at MoMA came two years later. It’s the most colorful, but it’s a bit too crisp for me. The comparatively sharp lines and the virtual rainbow of color make it seem somewhat cartoony. It does have a unique hand painted frame going for it though. It’s the only original frame left, and Munch wrote a poem on it describing his experience in Ekeburg!

The last Scream is also in the Munch Museum in Oslo and was done in tempera in 1910. Like the crayon version, it seems a bit rough. But it works. The flowing lines (look at those hands!) and the vacant, eyeless face makes it the most emotionally expressive of the bunch.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1910, tempra on cardboard, 83.5 x 66 cm.

In the end, it’s hard to distinguish quality and admiration from familiarity. I know I like The Scream, but if I hadn’t grown up with it would I have chosen it as my favorite? I can’t tell. But I will say one thing: On the other side of the wall The Scream is hung on at MoMA is Munch’s Madonna. I was surprised how drawn to it I was, and since everyone was crowded around The Scream, I got it all to myself.

 But I think I may like this 1894 painted version better than MoMA's lithograph and woodcut.

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