Exhibiting Sheer Terror: 'The Scream' at the Museum of Modern Art

Loren DiBlasi



There are few images of horror more recognizable, or more popular, than Edvard Munch’s The Scream. After making its rounds in pop culture-- from Andy Warhol’s silkscreens to “The Simpsons” to even Macaulay Culkin’s childish shriek in Home Alone-- the work has found itself a new, temporary home at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Even when entombed beneath a Plexiglass covering, the surprisingly bright, simplistic painting serves as a reminder not just of The Scream’s importance, but also its enduring celebrity status.


One of four Scream paintings from Munch’s The Frieze of Life cycle, this version from 1895 is the now famous pastel-on-board that sold for a whopping $120 million (give or take a few cents) in 2012. The headline-making sale represented not just the most expensive art work ever to be sold at auction, but also the persistently positive reputation of The Scream itself. Despite its bleak, maddening subject matter-- Munch’s attempt at reaching the darkest depths of his own soul-- The Scream now  joins the ranks of paintings such as Starry Night and The Mona Lisa as some of the most appreciated, adored works in all of art history.


Edvard Munch, born in a small village outside of Oslo, Norway, in 1863, was quite fittingly a cynic from the very start. Munch was only a child when faced with the death of his mother from tuberculosis, which is the same disease that would later take the life of his older sister, Johanne Sophie; Munch’s beloved sibling died at 15, but Johanne Sophie would eventually be immortalized in a series of macabre works known as The Sick Child (1885-1926). Munch, along with his younger siblings, would be raised by his father and Aunt Karen in Oslo.


According to Sue Prideaux, author of Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, Christian Munch was a devoted yet fanatically religious father who liked to entertain his children with spooky ghost stories at bedtime. Of his devout, overly anxious father, Munch would later explain, “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.”


It seems a natural progression that Munch-- an intelligent, frail boy from a poor family plagued constantly by sickness, mental illness, and death-- would grow up to explore the seedier aspects of life in his work. While we may queue up eagerly to view Munch’s art now, in reality, these works were never intended to please the masses. Instead, their true function was to provide a method for a tortured man to express the grief, guilt, and terror that resided deep within.



Of course, tell that to the crowds of people with flashing cameras currently jostling for space on the MoMA’s fifth floor. Ever-popular, The Scream (on loan to the museum for six months by its fabled owner) sits at the center of a dimly lit, darkly painted room surrounded by a sampling of Munch’s other well-known works. There’s a Madonna lithograph from 1895, depicting perhaps the unlikeliest version of the Virgin ever created; shrouded by ominous waves of black and blue, the abstract, unsettling representation hints towards a small, ghostly infant in the corner—perhaps the scariest Baby Jesus ever-- that is eerily reminiscent of The Scream’s central figure. Similarly, the gorgeous, painterly The Storm, from 1893, recalls the exact grim gesture that would later be re-created in The Scream and forever haunt our dreams.


Before manifesting his nightmarish fantasy into sharp, diagonal lines and suggestive swirls of vivid orange and blue, Munch first had to be inspired. We owe The Scream to a seemingly unassuming sunset stroll that soon became the stuff of legend. The feelings this walk evoked in Munch were later channeled into a poem that was etched by the artist himself into the painting’s simplistic frame:


“I was walking along the road with two of my friends. The sun set-- the sky became a bloody red. And I felt a touch of melancholy-- I stood still, dead tired-- over the blue-- black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on-- I stayed behind-- trembling with fright-- I felt the great scream in nature.”

Why is it that The Scream resonates so much with audiences? Is it because we can all relate to Munch’s suffering? Is there a dark, shadowy figure behind each man and woman that cloaks our very own hidden terrors? Or, is it merely because the painting is widely re-produced each year on everything from mugs, to T-shirts, to Halloween masks?


Either way, it’s an eerie and essential viewing. The painting is on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art until April 29.


Author Bio:

Loren DiBlasi is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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