“The Scream” is the name given to the four versions of a painting as well as a pastel by Edvard Munch, a famous Expressionist-artist whose works have become popular not only among the knowledgeable people but also among the general public, especially the youth. “The Scream” was painted from 1893 to 1910. “The Scream of Nature” is the full title of these works. However, the cognate of the Norwegian ‘skrik’ will be the English shriek. The painting is also called “The Cry” at times. There are many names for the central figure in the painting, such as a tadpole, a worm, a skull, a fetus, etc. Besides, it has been frequently dubbed as “the face that launched 1,000 therapists” and “the portrait of a soul”.
All of them depict a figure that has a very agonized expression. In the background, there is a landscape with a bright orange sky. The landscape is believed to be the Oslo field (fjord) from the perspective of the hill that overlooks the road in Ekeberg, which is in Norway. “The Scream” fits into the painting cycle of the artist, which is called “The Frieze of Life,” not to mention his love for depicting melancholy men and femmes fatales. It is seen at once that the painting is very personalized, just like a self-portrayal, but not in appearance – in the feelings and fears (Rosenberg, 2012).
Edvard Munch’s series of paintings is hold in various places. The National Gallery of Norway, which is located in Oslo, has one of the two versions painted in 1893. The Museum of Edvard Munch has another version of 1910 as well as the pastel version (1893). For years, these paintings were located in the same place; however, comparatively recently, they all were threatened by the thieves or actually stolen. The fourth version, which is a pastel of 1895, was sold at Sotheby's Modern and Impressionist art auction, held on the second of May 2012. Leon Black, the financier, bought it for $119,922,600, which became the highest nominal price ever paid for a painting at auctions. Nowadays, the picture obtained another status – the auction celebrity (Vogel, 2012).
The series of “The Scream” does not end on it. In 1895, Edvard Munch made a lithograph stone of the popular image. However, only several examples of this lithograph survived till our times. About four dozen prints of the stone were created before the original one was introduced by the printer when Munch was absent. This situation is quite comforting: no one can really violate “The Scream” by multiple reproductions as Munch did it all the time from the very beginning (Rosenberg, 2012).
“The Scream” has been already under the risk of being stolen. The version from the National Gallery in Norway was stolen in 1994. After a few months, it was turned back. In 2004, “The Scream” was stolen again from the Munch Museum together with another painting of the artist “Madonna”. Only two years later they were recovered.
Munch’s diary revealed the source of inspiration for creating the painting (dated by the 22nd January 1892):
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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”. (The Scream by Edvard Munch, 2011).
These words of Munch were later rendered into a poem that he engraved onto the frame of the pastel version of the painting in 1895 (The Scream by Edvard Munch, 2011):
I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
One of the theories which relate to the reddish sky behind the figure considers it to be the memory of Munch who saw the effects of the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Krakatau, after which the sunset skies were deep red in some areas of the Western hemisphere for a lot of months during 1883-1884. However, this theory has been widely disputed by many scholars, who stress on the point that Edvard Munch was a painter of Expressionism and was not interested in literal interpretations of what he had observed. On the other hand, Munch’s own description of the source of inspiration for the painting gives a slight proof that this theory may be valid.
Other theories suggest that the close location of both a lunatic asylum and a slaughterhouse to the area which is depicted in the painting might have added some inspiration. Furthermore, while the artist worked on the painting, Laura Catherine, his manic depressive sister, was undergoing a course at that asylum.
In 1978, Robert Rosenblum, the scholar of Munch, suggested an extraordinary theory that the sexless, strange creature in the painting was a production of a Peruvian mummy, which Munch probably saw at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. This mummy, buried in a position of fetus with its arms on its face, impressed greatly Paul Gauguin, a good friend of Munch. This mummy was also Gauguin’s inspiration for the central figure of the “Human Misery” in his painting and also a model for the old woman at his other painting “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”. The last worthy theory was suggested by the Italian anthropologist who claimed that Munch could have seen such a mummy in the Museum of Natural History in Florence, because of particularly striking similarity to the creature in the painting.
Some scholars have compared the image of “The Scream” to the facial expressions and feelings of an individual who suffers from the experiences of depersonalization disorder, a strong feeling of the environmental distortion and person’s own self.
In the end of the twentieth century, various depictions of the “The Scream” appeared. It was parodied, imitated, and absolute copies were made due to its copyright expiration. The amount of these depictions was so big that the image started to acquire a status of an icon in popular culture, especially among the youth. It was even used on the cover of a couple of editions of the book “The Primal Scream” by Arthur Janov. From 1983 till 1984, Andy Warhol, a pop artist and a fashion icon, made many silk prints that copied some works by Edvard Munch, including “The Scream”. Warhol’s intention, as he explained, was to desacralize the image by turning it into an object for the mass production. However, Munch had already started this process sooner than Andy Warhol when he made a lithograph of the painting (Vogel, 2012).
Erró's irreverent and ironic treatment of the real masterpiece by Edvard Munch in his own acrylic paintings “Ding Dong” of 1979 and “The Second Scream” of 1967 is regarded as a feature of post-modern art. Gary Larson, the cartoonist, included an icon which he called “The Howl” in his cartoon and painting compilation “Wiener Dog Art”, where the central figure is changed into a howling dachshund.
The popularity of the “The Scream” grew each year after its copyright expiration. The icon was used in films, in cartoons, such as The Simpsons, in advertising, etc. The movie with the same name gained an extreme popularity among the fans of horror genre. Unfortunately, all the application of “The Scream” in film production paid attention only to its scary appearance; therefore, no hidden meaning was transferred to the viewers. This hidden meaning is very strong in the icon as it reflects the scream of the soul. This scream is so loud, but no one hears it as it is completely silent at the same time. The combination of uncombined features only makes the image more powerful (The Scream by Edvard Munch, 2011).
The BBC series of Doctor Who of 2011 under the name “The Silence” has a close similarity to “The Scream”. The primary antagonists wear the ghost-face mask, which is very typical for other horror movies based on this painting. The series was created by Brigitte Sleiertin, the employee from the Fun World, as a Halloween costume, just before it was discovered by Wes Craven and Marianne Maddalena for the movie. Moreover, even American sitcom, The Nanny, uses the image when Grace gets a blow up 'Scream' doll as a Christmas present in the “Christmas Episode” and then this doll appears again in the 'A Star is Unborn'. Very few Americans have actually had the opportunity to actually see "The Scream" themselves. One of the versions that was sold at Sotheby's auction was the last on the territory of the United States (Aspden, 2012).
Due to the promotion of the image into a popular culture during the recent decades, the skeletal creature can be seen everywhere: beginning from political posters and ending up with ice-cube trays. Being a petrifying symbol of universal, overpowering angst, it decorated the front of 1961 The Times magazine’s issue "Guilt and Anxiety". More recently, it was renewed in cinematography as a sarcastic mash-up introduced in the "Home Alone" scream and then copied in a famous cartoon of Homer Simpson as the suffering Nordic soul.
Wes Craven, the director, shares that his interest in the howling ghost-face mask appeared after he watched the "Scream" movies as they reminded him of the Edvard Munch’s image, who has always been one of his favorite artists. "It is a classic reference to just the pure horror of parts of the twentieth century, or perhaps just human existence," Craven adds (Gamerman, 2012).
Because of such a global popularity, the work has become a real target. The bookies of London offered 20/1 odds that this work will be stolen each time before the auction starts. Two of other paintings of "The Scream" were stolen from the museums in Oslo. In 1994, thieves simply leaned a ladder against the window at the National Gallery and stole the work, leaving a note full of thanks to the museum administration for their poor security. It happened on the first day of the Olympic games in Lillehammer, which only added up to the publicity and increased the importance and the interest to the work.
Only one decade later, masked people with guns entered the Munch Museum and took away "The Scream" as well as other original Munch’s works. After that, Mars Incorporation, which used “The Scream” for promotion of their dark-chocolate M&Ms, made a great offer of two million M&Ms for the work to be returned. However, such a candy reward has not yet been received according to the instructions of the Norwegian authorities. Despite this, both paintings were finally recovered.
Sotheby's auction has long been laying the first painting for the Munch market, producing eight of the top ten sales of Munch recently. However, very few paintings by Edvard Munch have come up for auctions so far. Collectors do not have enough of a sales history to refer to, which could have offended the bidder’s confidence. For example, “Fertility”, a pastoral scene in the understanding of Munch that appeared on a Christie's catalog cover in 2010, was not sold at all. This failure does not seem to be reasonable, especially if to take into consideration the fact that people are inclined to become particularly vain when the talk goes about someone’s fame and their relation towards it. “The Scream” was more than enough to make Edvard Munch one of the leading artists of the Expressionism; however, his paintings still prove to be quite unusual and, therefore, trigger very opposite reactions of people.
David Nash, the art dealer from New York, who ran Sotheby’s international modern and Impressionist department for quite a lot of years, reveals that despite his expectations of the work to get a high price, he is very surprised by the auction strategy concerning “The Scream”. "There does not seem to be much justification for such a high estimate," he shares. "They should be better off to put a more realistic estimate and let the market determine what the final price is going to be" (Gamerman, 2012).
Other experts are more optimistic: an analyst of the global art market, Skate's Art Market Research, predicts that the painting can be easily sold with the price range of $ 92.5 million to $ 123.4 million. He made such a prediction by comparing Munch’s leading work with the paintings of other very famous works by different artists that are at sale, for example, Munch’s friend, Paul Gauguin, or Vincent van Gogh (Gamerman, 2012).
During its entire lifetime, the painting has belonged only to three families, which is considered to be very little in the world of artworks. Originally, “The Scream” was owned by a coffee magnate from Germany. Later on, Peter Olsen, a real-estate developer from Norway has announced that he is going to sell “The Scream” for a very large sum of money in order to start a museum of Munch's works, which will be opened the next year in Hvitsten, Norway.
In the recent years, the artist has become extremely popular due to the constant appearance of his icon everywhere. His exhibit attracted over 486,000 visitors to Paris, the Centre Pompidou. Next year, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edvard Munch will be commemorated by the Norwegian museum exhibition.
Such popularity of the painting, particularly the creature in it, has aroused many theories in regard to the possible source of inspiration of the artist before creating this piece of art. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neurobiology professor, found out in her research, which she conducted on macaque monkeys, that brain neurons strongly respond to all exaggerated features (for example, tiny noses or huge eyes ) much more than to common physical characteristics. “That's why I think a caricature of an emotion works so well,” she states. “It is what our nerve cells are tuned to.” A co-founder of the NoPlace, Karen Nikgol, has another theory. She says that, “a scream is a very human thing. The inner sorrow or the inner anguish and inner pain, that is timeless” (Aspden, 2012).
Moreover, the state of Edvard Munch when he created his first version of the “The Scream” must also be taken into consideration. He was a recognized alcoholic and heavy smoker who endured his state of despair. Despite turning thirty years old, he had no money, suffered greatly from a catastrophic love affair and was utterly terrified by the mere thought of getting ill with some mental disease that was endemic to his family. Probably, the one wrongful perception about the painting is the scream itself: a lot of art historians agree that the creature is actually not howling but blocking out the screams around it (Why the Sky Was Red in Munch’s “The Scream”, 2010).
Art historians also call “The Scream” to be a Munch's reaction to the ideas of Impressionism, which was boring to him; therefore, he appealed to the world perception of Expressionism, the era when artists tried to dissect their psychological cores. Edvard Munch had read a lot of books on this theme and attended special lectures in Paris hospital (the same as Sigmund Freud) before he created “The Scream”.
The supporters of freethinking art in Europe immediately overtook the image. Furthermore, to promote the popularity of the painting even more, the auction house had printed a limited edition of books about the painting for their top clients. It had also produced two videos that promoted “The Scream” at selling.
Munch’s own approach to art is reflected in this painting quite vividly: he saw art as the opposition to the nature. In his understanding, any work of art may only be produced when the inside of a person has something to say. Art is the shape of nerves, brains, heart, and even the eyes of a man.
Therefore, “The Scream” can be considered an idealized self-portrait, however, not of his body and face, but of his inner feelings, especially his fear. The painting depicts also a promenade, which occupies the canvas to the left, and a wooden fence, which runs from the right corner to the middle of the left. Out of the frames of the picture to the left, there are two best friends, but Munch has turned round to stare somewhere out of the painting borders, his head in his hands and the mouth is wide open in the scream: the scream for silence or the scream as the expression of the fear which burns him from the inside. Behind the figure, Munch, the sea swirls, and the sky add to the fear. The nature also expresses the urgency of the feelings of the poor creature in the center of “The Scream” (Welford, 2011).
The sea is in deep greens and blues, and the sky is vivid yellow and red. It is interesting that in all versions of “The Scream”, the colors are different, which can express the change of his personal state of mind. Nature seems to threaten to engulf the creature which is standing paralyzed with fear and no one can protect him because his friends left him. Having no one and nothing to save him from the horrible forces that are beyond the borders of his control, the creature, whether it is the viewer who has placed oneself in the artist’s position, or the artist, cannot do anything else but scream.
The irony or even the sarcasm of the painting lies in the fact that those forces of nature are just a good metaphor for the horror of the real life, which is inside each man’s head. However, this horror is different for different people, but no one can state that they have no fears at all. The society is shaped in such a way that people have to face various fears constantly: fear to lose the beloved one, fear of illness, fear of bankruptcy, etc. All of human beings are continuously driven and exhausted by some personal horrors. However, some of them know how to cope with them, while others give way to it and lose their lives (Welford, 2011).
Even if the nature was calm, the friends were close, and the boats floated serenely somewhere in the distance, the tempest between those two large hands will remain there. Because it does not matter so much what is going on around, the real matter is inside of each individual. People’s world perception starts from the personal thoughts and attitudes and the nature can only emphasize the already existing worries (Welford, 2011).
Therefore, the swirling sky and sea are mere projections of his mind. The people’s mental anguish is totally internal; however, it can be understood only through externalization. The action of trying to run away from one’s own fears is, of course, the scream (Rosenberg, 2012).
“The Scream” is generally recognized to be one of the world’s most disturbing and iconic paintings that will always provoke a reaction in the viewer. This reaction differs from person to person depending on their mental state; however, it is always there. It does not mean that to understand the painting, the individual is expected to have some mental disorder; it just means that the painting makes people’s most hidden worries come out again. The picture is like a mirror of that anguish which is buried deep down in the heart, but then it comes out at some point which goes over the limit of endurance.
In conclusion, “The Scream” has been often mentioned in popular culture, especially with the rise of postmodernism. The statement that, “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” as Roland Barthes defined the postmodern texts, is quite true. Barthes wanted to prove that nothing is really original, and practically all texts are a mixture of various ideas borrowed from the culture that the artist inhabits and are just placed in some new context (The Scream by Edvard Munch, 2011). Such approach can be regarded as a little superficial use of postmodernism, however, a valid one, at the same time. This approach increased interest in something that already was a popular image. Copies of the mask used by the killer in the movie are now mass-produced in the whole world, and the mummy from the painting is used on different artifacts of merchandise, creating a whole lot of culture which refers to Munch’s original image.